The exterior steps of the main jail in Santa Clara County
The Santa Clara County board of Supervisors approved wristwatch trackers or specialized mobile phones to keep tabs on people in home detention or under court orders. File photo.

Santa Clara County courthouses are trading in ankle monitors for less conspicuous surveillance of people who are on probation or awaiting trial.

County judges in the coming weeks can instead monitor people through wristwatch trackers or specialized mobile phones with limited functionality, after the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a $3 million contract with surveillance tech company BI Inc. for what they described as more humane and less stigmatized ways of keeping tabs on people in home detention or under court orders. County officials said the new measures are cheaper and can help limit the jail population.

“They’re more modern, more functional and less invasive,” County Office of Pretrial Services Director Matthew Fisk said at Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s taken quite a while to get here.”

But the devices — while touted as more humane — still expand carceral control beyond the jails, Board of Supervisors President Susan Ellenberg said at the meeting.

“They can reproduce the harms of incarceration by limiting family and community connections and people’s ability to find jobs or education,” Ellenberg said.

The American Civil Liberties Union has argued ankle monitors often lead people back into physical jails and prisons for minor technical violations — exacerbating racial and disability inequities and exacting high financial tolls.

The civil rights group — and Ellenberg on Tuesday — pointed to government-run pilot programs in Louisiana and New York that reduced failure-to-appear rates among people charged with crimes. These programs call individuals who have been arrested and released while they wait to appear for arraignment and remind them to appear at their scheduled court dates. New York officials said courtroom no-shows significantly dropped compared to a control group of people who received no reminder.

Ankle monitors, however, aren’t going away. County officials say the new devices will be used in addition to ankle monitors for the time being. The surveillance use policy says the devices will be used by the sheriff, probation and pre-trial services departments to monitor an individual’s compliance with supervised release. It says the devices will also be used to gather evidence to aid prosecutions. The devices will have facial recognition capabilities and the county policy says the three departments will maintain the data separately and that no departments shall have access to another department’s photographic data.

The sheriff’s office declined to comment.

“We trust and expect that whatever technology is adopted to monitor those released from custody, that it will be effective in keeping the community and victims of crime safe,” Assistant District Attorney James Gibbons-Shapiro told San José Spotlight. “We are not wedded to any particular device or technology. We are dedicated to the safety of Santa Clara County.”

Supervisor Otto Lee, prompted by anecdotes of people slipping out of ankle monitors to escape custody, said even the current system fails at times.

“I hope you ensure this device will do at least as good — if not a better job of — making sure the purpose is being served,” Lee said at the meeting.

Fisk said technology is never infallible.

“We’ll continue to work with and support clients through newer and more comfortable devices,” he said.

Ellenberg pondered other ways of getting people to make their court dates.

“Coordinating child care and providing transportation also increases court compliance,” she said at the meeting. “I urge you to continue to think creatively on how we can lessen the burden of these devices on our county.”

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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