SAN FRANCISCO - When San Francisco began thinning out its jails in recent years after the state’s cash bail system was upended – judges and prosecutors looked to another system to keep tabs on potentially violent defendants awaiting trial: electronic ankle monitors.
And in the last four years, the number of people awaiting trial on ankle monitors has shot up by 500% as the city’s jail population has been nearly cut in half.
But while advocates say the system has reduced incarceration and brought important reforms to the city criminal justice system, critics say increasingly violent offenders are being released and are committing violations with little consequence.
"We are seeing people that are blatantly not following the courts orders and the conditions of release getting re-arrested and returning back to our program immediately," said Lt. Jonathan Kuhns, who works sheriff’s department’s unit overseeing the ankle monitoring program.
People who are placed on ankle monitoring are ordered to stay within a 50-mile radius of San Francisco as they await trial. Some are placed on house arrest or have curfews that require them to be at home certain hours – for which they earn credits for time served.
The state supreme court in 2018 ruled that cash bail was unconstitutional for defendants who can't afford to pay. And San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Bouin took it a step further in 2020 and pledged to never seek cash bail. He said he would instead seek to hold the most dangerous defendants in jail without bail.
Since the landmark ruling, San Francisco dropped from an average daily jail population of 1,330 in 2018 to 746 inmates on June 2.
In 2017, the sheriff’s department reported 62 people on electronic monitoring, compared with the 365 people on the program last month.
Among that group, 220 people are awaiting trial for violent crimes like rape, attempted murder, robbery, kidnapping and more. Another 31 had illegal weapons charges – like being a felon in possession of a loaded firearm. And 17 others had violated domestic violence restraining orders.
And every month, data shows, around half of the people put on ankle monitors commit violations that rise to the level of having a warrant issued for their arrest.
Some months, up to 50 defendants just cut off their monitors and disappear. The monitors cost more than $500 each and are often never recovered or permanently damaged, officials said.
"They’re throwing them off of freeways. They’re throwing them into the bay. They’re throwing them into garbage cans. They’re throwing them on roofs," Kuhns said.
KTVU went on a ride-along with the sheriff’s department to see the system in action. Kuhns arrested one defendant who is accused of choking his girlfriend with a dog leash.
The man was put on an electronic ankle monitor and prohibited from entering certain areas of the city. After letting the battery die on his device and violating the stay-away order, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
The next day, KTVU watched as the man was released on another ankle monitor.
"When you put no conditions on someone or very few conditions on someone – and when there are no consequences – then this is where it ceases to be an effective program," said Chief Deputy Michele Fisher, who works in the unit with Kuhns.
She added that ankle monitors do very little to keep the public safe.
"It’s not the piece of plastic that’s going to stop someone who has intentions to commit a crime and hurt other people," she said.
KTVU found dozens of examples of defendants who were put on ankle monitoring only to commit more alleged crimes.
One that stood out was the case of Hershel Hale. He was given a suspended sentence and credit for time served in 2019 for auto burglary and assault on an officer. He picked up at least two more cases after being release and was eventually put on an ankle monitor while he was ordered to attend a drug treatment program.
But in July, records show Hale cut off his electronic monitor and vanished. He was arrested in February and charged in the killing of retired police officer Kevin Nishita, who was guarding a television news crew in Oakland.
Hale is now serving his full 7-year sentence in state prison in Kern County while homicide charges are pending in Alameda County.
Advocates for the accused have their own issues with the program. They say ankle monitors act as electronic shackles that are only an extension of incarceration – not the progressive reforms some claim.
"There’s no evidence whatsoever that it’s effective," said Danielle Harris, a managing attorney at the public defender’s office. "It is a strange thing to be using a tool without knowing that it addresses the problem that you're seeking to address."
She emphasized that pre-trial defendants have the presumption of innocence and are being unfairly stigmatized by having to wear ankle monitors.
"What we know is the drivers of crime are things like addiction or poverty, economic disparity, mental health – electronic monitoring addresses none of those things," she said.
KTVU also spoke to several defendants on ankle monitors.
One man who only gave his first name, Frankee, said he understands why many people cut off their monitors. He said he’s consumed by the thought that he’s being constantly tracked by the device.
"I kind of felt like I would have rather stayed in jail because of the panic," he said. "It kind of overwhelms me. I get into this state of psychosis where everyone’s after me."
But Marcell Clark offered a different point of view. He’s in treatment for opioid addiction and is happy he can be a father to his son while he awaits trial. Under the previous system that used cash bail, he said he likely wouldn’t have been able to afford to pay his way out and would be languishing behind bars.
"This is actually a way to help you get out and still take care of your family," he said. "A lot of people make mistakes and just because you make one mistake, two mistakes, doesn’t mean your whole life being ruined."
KTVU reached out to the San Francisco Superior Court judges to ask about many of these cases. A spokesman told us they would not comment on any pending cases.
KTVU also requested an interview with San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin – who’s currently facing a recall. He campaigned on his work to end cash bail and reduce the jail population.
KTVU tried to interview him during a campaign stop after trying for a full week set up an interview, but he left suddenly rather than answer our questions.
A spokeswoman for his office later replied to our questions in an email.
"We ask for detention when we believe someone poses a public safety risk that cannot be addressed by other restrictions," district attorney spokeswoman Rachel Marshall wrote. "Often times judges deny our requests. Other times, we request release with conditions. The decision is always up to a judge, as is the consequence for a violation of any release conditions."
She later added that "we are tremendously proud of our leadership in ending prosecutors’ reliance on bail in San Francisco and instead promoting an approach that uses safety—not money—to guide release and detention requests."
Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at Evan.Sernoffsky@foxtv.com and follow him on Twitter @evansernoffsky.