Lawsuit Confronts Extortion of Prisoners by Electronic Monitoring Firm

Robert Jackson was four days into a 120-day sentence in an Alameda County, California, jail when his wife passed away unexpectedly, leaving their three young children without a parent in the home. He was compassionately released with the caveat that he submit to electronic monitoring by the for-profit Leaders in Community Alternatives (LCA) company.

Though his weekly paycheck was $400-$500, his weekly monitoring fees to LCA came to $250 per week — 50-65 percent of his total income. He ultimately paid around $4,500 for 113 days of monitoring, while being repeatedly threatened with violation and jail if he didn’t pay — something that would have left his children without a parent and at the mercy of the state. Jackson was forced to sell his car and eventually had to give up his apartment — leaving him homeless — just so he could pay off LCA.

As a father reeling from the sudden loss of his wife, Jackson seemingly did everything within his power to protect and care for his children who had just had their mother unexpectedly ripped from their lives. All the while, he was pleading for mercy and relief from a multimillion-dollar electronic monitoring company wielding the power of the state without any interest in his or his family’s welfare. While this may sound like the plot of some dystopian novel, for Jackson and his children, this horror story was all too real.

Class Action Lawsuit Accuses Monitoring Company of Extortion

Jackson is one of four plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit brought by Equal Justice Under Law, a civil rights nonprofit, against the California-based LCA on July 31. While many reformers of the criminal legal system are touting electronic monitoring as a humane alternative to incarceration, this lawsuit raises some serious alarm bells about the punitive nature of this technology, especially when left unregulated in the hands of private providers. The case continues a trend of litigation concerning abuse by private companies handling probation and parole services.

According to Equal Justice Under Law’s director of legal strategy and partnerships and the plaintiff’s attorney, Catherine Sevcenko, the suit accuses the for-profit company of using electronic monitoring “services” to extort money from impoverished people who find themselves legally entangled. This alleged extortion comes in the form of exorbitant monitoring and enrollment fees and the state-backed threat of incarceration.

LCA, whose home page proudly proclaims the firm has been “Changing lives since 1991,” began its monitoring contracts with Alameda County more than two decades ago. Its current agreement with the county, signed in 2013, captures electronic monitoring clients from both the Superior Court and the Probation Department. LCA’s business model is simple: providing electronic monitoring service and supervision of the monitored for the county at no cost to the state. In fact, all of the costs as well as the profits for this multimillion-dollar company are covered by payments from the people with shackles strapped to their ankles — individuals who are often already struggling to make ends meet.

Here’s how it works: Alameda County determines that someone is required to be electronically monitored. Often this is before trial, when the person has yet to be convicted of any crime. The case is then turned over to LCA, a privately owned electronic monitoring company and subsidiary of SuperCom, a digital tracking company with interests in 20 countries that is also a defendant in the ongoing litigation. At this point, Alameda County essentially washes its hands of the person, unless called upon later to enforce compliance with LCA rules, including payment of monitoring fees. LCA charges the “client” an initial $150 “enrollment fee” as well as a base monitoring fee of $25.50 per day, with the first two weeks payment due up front.

Following this, clients are told that they must pay these fees every week or be “violated,” or dropped from the program, and sent back to jail. In actuality, violations don’t result in automatic incarceration, but rather send the person before a judge who then determines whether or not they will be jailed. Though not everyone who is violated is sent to lock up, the threat of incarceration, particularly for people in circumstances similar to Jackson’s is very real and potentially devastating.

Attorney Sevcenko summed up the situation in a phone interview with Truthout, saying, “If you’re the person with cancer or the person with three children who just lost their mother, you’re not going to be taking that risk. Just because violations don’t automatically mean returning to jail doesn’t excuse LCA. You’re basically forcing someone to play Russian roulette simply because they don’t have enough money.”

The lawsuit accuses LCA of extortion under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, something typically reserved for mob bosses.

Taking Advantage of Most Vulnerable Prisoners

LCA seems to have a penchant for finding people in dire circumstances and using those situations to extort money from them. As is the case with Jackson, for whom a violation and subsequent return to jail would have meant losing his children to foster homes even as they were grieving the loss of their mother, all the plaintiffs — who are all African American men — have had traumatic experiences at the hands of LCA.

According to the suit, William Edwards was battling cancer when he found himself in jail awaiting trial. The life-saving chemotherapy pills he had been taking were soon denied and his health rapidly deteriorated. After a lengthy battle, the county finally agreed to let him out so that he could access the medication that was keeping him alive. The only catch was that he would be placed on an electronic monitor, have every move controlled by LCA and be a prisoner in his own home. LCA demanded that Edwards surrender 20 percent of his weekly income for this “privilege”; repeatedly threatening to have him sent back to jail if he didn’t come up with the money. As a jail sentence for Edwards meant again being denied the medication he requires to survive, these threats of incarceration were essentially threats to his life. The charges against Edwards were eventually dropped, but the cost of monitoring, financially and emotionally, remains.

Likewise, the suit argues that Kyser Wilson was charged upwards of 30 percent of his weekly income and forced to choose between fulfilling his financial obligations to the court and paying off LCA. Alameda County couldn’t jail him for being too poor to pay court fees, though as Sevcenko points out, “The County can just keep adding late fees and interest, and push a person further into that financial hole.” LCA, however, could use the state to have him jailed for being too poor to pay monitoring fees. Fear of incarceration forced his decision to pay LCA rather than pay the court that placed him in LCA’s clutches. This caused his court debt to increase by another $1,000.

James Brooks, a longshoreman by trade, had given up his job to be caregiver to his paralyzed mother who required around-the-clock care. Though unemployed, the suit contends that he was forced to pay more than $1,600 over a 58-day period, all the while living with the fear that if he were to be violated for lack of payment, his mother would not survive his incarceration.

In each of these cases, the suit alleges that according to California statute the plaintiffs’ financial situations should have been assessed and the monitoring fees adjusted based on their ability to pay. Sevcenko told Truthout that “people who are being monitored cannot be charged more than they are able to pay. They are supposed to work that out with the contracting agency. If there is a dispute, they’re supposed to go back into court and the judge is supposed to analyze the person’s financial situation.”

“That’s what’s supposed to happen,” Sevcenko added, “but it doesn’t, because LCA is never going to make any money if it’s only charging $3 per day.”

For “clients” of LCA, this assessment constitutes an onerous and complicated process requiring a calculus of paperwork and, the lawsuit contends, rarely results in relief. Among other things, individuals are required to provide their own financial information plus that of anyone in the household, though there is no California law requiring such disclosure.

While each of Sevcenko’s clients jumped the hurdles LCA placed before them, none of the plaintiffs’ fees were reduced, and each ended up paying thousands of dollars they didn’t have and taking desperate measures to do so. For its part, LCA has no incentive to reduce monitoring fees, as all of its profits come directly from the monitored. Additionally, there seems to be virtually no oversight from Alameda County, which has also been named in the litigation. Essentially, the suit maintains that LCA is a private company that is able to charge its captive “clientele” any amount it wishes, threatening and making good on its threat to use the power of the state against anyone who refuses or is unable to pay. The state meanwhile looks the other way unless it is called upon to play enforcer.

“The contract says ‘LCA, you go do your thing. Just don’t look to us for money,” Sevcenko says. “So, the county in some ways is writing this blank check to LCA.”

This blank check was a promise of money that the plaintiffs of the July 31 lawsuit were then forced to pay. They aren’t alone. Sevcenko acknowledges there are many others in similar situations who have been extorted by LCA, including one person she spoke with who declined to be named in the suit due to still being under the thumb of the company and fearing retaliation through incarceration. Between January 2015 and October of 2016, the suit claims, LCA was monitoring an average of 112 people a day. The $25.50 daily charges alone for this period would have come to more than $1 million, (excluding enrollment fees).

Truthout contacted LCA for this story but the company declined to comment.

Increasing Scrutiny of Electronic Monitoring

Equal Justice Under Law specializes in lawsuits targeting corporate abuse of the poor in trying to fulfill the organization’s mission of seeking “radical reform of systemic inequalities in our justice system.” The civil rights nonprofit has already won victories in a number of court cases, including several that attack cash bail.

In this instance, Equal Justice’s petition alleges LCA took advantage of impoverished people in desperate, sometimes life-and-death situations, then exploited these circumstances with state-sanctioned impunity to line LCA’s own deep pockets, all the while claiming to do so for the betterment of the community and even for the people it is accused of extorting. Perhaps that is what LCA means by “changing lives.”

“That’s what made me so furious here,” said Sevcenko. “It really is taking advantage of people at their most vulnerable.”

While this case against LCA highlights some of the challenges posed by electronic monitoring, a range of complaints about this technology has emerged in recent years, especially as the devices are increasingly applied to immigrants, youth and in the pre-trial context. Grievances focus not only on exorbitant fees but also on the excessively punitive nature of the house arrest regimes that typically come with monitors.

In a recent convening of activists, lawyers and directly impacted individuals in Chicago, participants raised the issues of how monitors curtailed their ability to carry out parenting duties, look for work and attend medical appointments. Emmanuel Andre, director of the city’s Northside Transformative Law Center, a restorative justice hub focusing on youth, noted the problems of people without a home often being given house arrest with electronic monitoring. Irene Romulo, director of advocacy for the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which campaigns for an end to cash bond, labeled electronic monitoring an “unacceptable alternative” that often “mimics the harms of incarceration.”

As the debate over decarceration continues, the role of technological solutions and private companies will doubtless come under increasing scrutiny. The litigation against LCA likely represents a harbinger of many legal and extra-legal struggles still to come over contentious alternatives to incarceration like electronic monitoring and abusive actions by private companies in the criminal legal sphere.