Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow — a local B-list celebrity, fawning mafiosi, and convicted murder-conspirator and drug-runner — wore a court-ordered ankle bracelet for years while allegedly running a $2.29 million money-laundering fiefdom in Chinatown. During that time, he curried favor with politicians, posted scads of photographs on Facebook, and quietly waited for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to process his S-visa application (the so-called "snitch" visa for government informants), which would make him a permanent resident.
He also lobbied state Sen. Leland Yee to get the bracelet removed — a proposal that Yee ultimately rejected. Chow would remain ensconced within a well-defined pocket of San Francisco, his movements tracked, and documented, by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation officer. Per the feds' exceedingly detailed affadavits, that didn't stop him from moving contraband.
By overseeing a secret network in plain sight of law enforcement, Chow came to illustrate one of the shortcomings of a technology that some city officials hail as an antidote to over-incarceration. Ankle bracelets gather data about a convict's whereabouts, keeping him or her within a circumscribed area and providing automated detention. But someone still has to keep watch. Unless that data is carefully analyzed, it reveals little about what the wearer is actually doing.
Still, local politicians are aggressively pushing for these devices. In 2013, the city had 359 people on electronic monitors — its highest number in five years. That June, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi began crusading for legislation that would broaden his authority to release people from jail and put them on devices, whether or not they'd been deemed "low-risk" by the courts. Stumping for the ordinance at a February public safety meeting, he told city supervisors that the monitors had spared the city 24,362 days of jail custody in 2013, which translates into considerable savings: It costs about $135 a day to keep someone in jail. In comparison, monitors cost around $1,200 to $1,300 a pop, but in most cases, the convicts are stuck footing the bill. (Proponents of electronic monitoring hew to a doctrine of personal responsibility; they believe restitution — even to a jailer or taxpayers — is the first step toward recognizing one's misdeeds.)
So, ankle bracelets could divert tons of money back into city coffers. "Certainly, if you're using it to release people from jail, there's a return on investment," says San Francisco's Chief Probation Officer, Wendy Still.
If the sheriff's proposal moves forward, San Franciscans may see the beginnings of an increasingly robotized criminal justice system. Progressive politicians roundly support the devices; Public Defender Jeff Adachi contends that they're still "severely under-used." On May 1, the city inked a new deal with correctional vendor LCA Services ("LCA" stands for "Leaders in Community Alternatives"), whose president, Linda Connelly, is gearing up to shill more tracking bracelets, transdermal alcohol detectors, and other penal apparatuses. Per its contract, LCA has three years to wring a maximum of $2 million out of the city.
Ankle monitors promise a brave new world for San Francisco, and yet the hype around them fits right into a historical pattern. San Francisco has a reputation for latching onto the latest and greatest policing technologies — including surveillance cameras, gunfire detection microphones, and the crime-mapping system CompStat — only to find out later that they don't work, or provide a redundant service, or aren't the salve they purport to be.
San Francisco has already done a remarkable job of reducing its jail population by steering inmates into rehabilitation programs and cutting drug prosecutions in half. Whereas other regions are desperate to alleviate overcrowding, San Francisco's jail is running at a 30-50 percent vacancy rate. Politicians are gearing up to build a new jail downtown, which the city might not be capable of filling — a good problem to have.
And now, electronic monitoring is poised to become the next big innovation. It could change San Francisco's law enforcement strategy, allowing nonviolent offenders to live at home, clearing the jail, and saving thousands of dollars in the process. Or, it could burden the city with a population of criminals it's unable to supervise — and oceans of data it's unequipped to paddle through.
But the temptation of innovation is there, and with a hell of a sales pitch: While other devices merely collect crime data, a GPS-equipped ankle bracelet promises to obviate the demand for penal infrastructure. Why lock people in cells when their whole prison experience could be condensed into one piece of wearable gadgetry?
Fine-boned and stern, with a flinty Alabama accent, Linda Connelly probably could have hawked any household product to the citizens of San Francisco. But her focus is corrections. Over four decades of working in the criminal justice system, she held positions in a federal prison and a halfway house, before getting fixated on GPS tracking technology. Connelly founded LCA in 1991, and has since established herself as a big player in the industry, delivering GPS devices, alcohol trackers, drug testing, and case-management services to eight California counties.
Holding court in her Market Street office on a recent Tuesday, Connelly showcases LCA's latest offerings: two black rubber policing devices, arrayed on a coffee table next to a glass of tea and a bouquet of dried flowers. One, the Omnilink GPS bracelet, is a thick band of interwoven tamper wires with a giant box on the end; the other, called a SCRAM device, detects alcohol as it evaporates off the wearer's skin.
"Over the years there's been a huge debate," Connelly says, pointing at the GPS box. "Do we make them small and unobtrusive so there's not a stigma? Or do we make them big and obnoxious, like a Scarlet Letter?"
The current versions fall somewhere in between, she says. They're just small enough to hide under a baggy pant leg, but big enough to stand out if someone dons a dress or shorts — which was the case with a bracelet-wearer sitting in the lobby that morning. His monitor bulged conspicuously over a blue Adidas sandal.