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How COVID-19 has jacked up the cost of house arrests

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Criminal defendants are racking up huge fees for GPS monitoring while they are on home detention awaiting trial and as trials have been delayed and delayed and delayed, Tim Prudente reported for The Baltimore Sun.

The story begins with one man who was arrested:

A judge had ordered the little box on his ankle; it cost him $87 a week — about $375 a month. The GPS tracker was to make sure he showed up to stand trial for assault. Except the coronavirus left his trial suspended indefinitely. The cost piled up, no end in sight.

Maryland suspended jury trials more than 160 days ago. In that time, some people accused of crimes have been sitting in jail, their cases going nowhere. Others have been out on house arrest, wearing monitors that they have to pay for. And as long as the courts stay closed, that bill keeps growing.

The story quoted one man who is awaiting his day in court who said it is all “entrapment” because he has only two choices: pay the thousands of dollars for the monitor or go to jail where COVID-19 cases spread like wildfire.

The Sun reported:

“When someone is put on home detention right now, it’s really a sentence to an indefinite trial date,” said Matthew Zernhelt, legal director for the nonprofit Baltimore Action Legal Team or BALT, which pays home monitoring fees for about 100 people. “They’re paying indefinitely, or they’re sitting in jail in COVID conditions.”

Bloomberg Business reported, “An estimated 25% to 30% more prisoners are wearing bracelets now compared to the pre-outbreak period.”

Let me tell you, journalists, I would turn my attention to the private companies that are raking in money from this situation. In Maryland, that falls to three companies that hired more workers to keep up with business.

The Crime Report, which is based at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said:

“The companies are betting that this can be a test run for a longer-term shift in sentencing,” writes Cara Tabachnick, former deputy editor of The Crime Report, in the story posted Tuesday.

“Criminal justice reformers say they’re worried about an added layer of surveillance in a field that’s been rife with abuse.”

In the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Prisons has placed about 4,600 inmates in home confinement, a 160 percent increase since the end of March.

This whole GPS monitoring gig is something that could use your attention. ProPublica reported on it a year ago, explaining that in Missouri you could pay $300 upfront, then a $50 installation fee and $10 a day. It was a growth industry even before COVID-19 pushed jails to find a way to empty cells. ProPublica explained:

As ankle bracelets have become compact and cost-effective, legislators have embraced them as an enlightened alternative. More than 125,000 people in the criminal-justice system were supervised with monitors in 2015, compared with just 53,000 people in 2005, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Although no current national tally is available, data from several cities — Austin, Texas; Indianapolis; Chicago; and San Francisco — show that this number continues to rise.

There is a big reason that jails, funded by local governments, like GPS monitors. They get people out of jail facilities and shift the cost of incarceration to the defendant. But then again, such freedom is only for those who can afford it. Remember that the GPS monitors cost you whether you are convicted or not. And the overwhelming number of people wearing them are awaiting trial, meaning they have been convicted of nothing. As ProPublica put it:

Although a federal survey shows that nearly 40% of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to cover an emergency, companies and courts routinely threaten to lock up defendants if they fall behind on payment. In Greenville, South Carolina, pretrial defendants can be sent back to jail when they fall three weeks behind on fees.

Law enforcement in Cook County, Illinois, have warned that the surge in monitoring is about to overwhelm the system. In fact, there were reports of a shortage of monitors that has kept people in COVID-infected jails.

Other countries, especially those in Europe, are using GPS monitors more as they open their cell doors to an even bigger growth in decarceration, as they call it, as they empty jails and prisons to lower the threat of COVID-19 spreading.

Writer/activist James Kilgore has a phrase for this trend — e-carceration.

I do not know of any group that has reported more about electronic monitoring than my friends at The Marshall Project.

Protesters demand rent relief and/or a rent freeze during an August 2020 protest in New York City. (STRF/STAR MAX/IPx)

When I first heard the bulletin, I could not imagine how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could somehow prevent evictions through the end of the year. But the White House said the CDC will use its quarantine authority to prevent renters from being evicted from their homes for the rest of 2020.

The CDC believes it has the authority to do whatever it needs to prevent the spread of the pandemic virus and is making the argument that evictions are a health threat.

The CDC said that evictions would lead to homelessness and homelessness would push people to crowd into spaces with friends or family or find shelter in public facilities where they are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19. The CDC order said, “throughout the United States, among 208 shelters reporting universal diagnostic testing data, 9% of shelter clients have tested positive.” The order adds, “In short, evictions threaten to increase the spread of COVID-19 as they force people to move, often into close quarters in new shared housing settings with friends or family, or congregate settings such as homeless shelters.”

The action would mean that people who earn no more than $99,000 annually are protected right away.

Bloomberg reported:

To obtain the relief, renters must assert they are incapable of paying their rent or are likely to become homeless if kicked out of their property, the administration official said.

Individuals who received a coronavirus stimulus check earlier this year also qualify for the protection, as do couples who jointly file their taxes and expect to earn less than $198,000.

The order reminds renters that they will still owe past-due rent payments and landlords may still collect fees and even interest on the balance. The White House said it will make money available to landlords who are not getting their rent checks but have bills to pay themselves.

The CDC said if a landlord tries to evict a renter, the renter should sign and present to the landlord this document. The document says the renter meets the financial threshold for eviction protection, that they do not have an alternative place to stay and if they were evicted they might become homeless, and that they would make a good-faith effort to pay what they owe.

The same sort of protection is included in a House-approved COVID-19 stimulus bill that is stalled in Congress with the Senate out of town until next week. The administration has hinted at this move for nearly a month.

The Aspen Institute estimated that 29 million renters in 12.6 million households may be at risk of eviction by the end of 2020. You can go here to see state-by-state estimates from Aspen.

Journalists, it will be important that you make the document available to the public since the CDC’s efforts may well be called into question by landlords who want money now.

Even before the pandemic, online gambling was growing into a big deal. Now it is genuinely hot.

Even while casinos are hemorrhaging money, online gambling sites think they might hit $95 billion within the U.S. in three years. Tennessee just decided to allow online sports betting starting Nov. 1. Online sports betting just returned in Illinois. Gov. J. B. Pritzker re-signed an executive order that allows Illinois residents to sign up for sports betting accounts and place wagers without having to visit a casino in person. Globally, online gambling is growing at a double-digit rate., which covers the online commerce industry, reported:

Such sites are expecting major growth in the U.S., reaching a value of $102.9 billion by 2025, according to one study. Online gambling companies appear to be weathering the pandemic better than their brick-and-mortar cousins, but an environment in which gambling occurs online requires payments to shift as well. Consumers sitting down to bet through their computers or phones likely do not want to receive winnings via checks and expect effortless digital payments — even with online gambling platforms’ security measures ensuring winners are properly verified.

Online gambling was already growing before the pandemic as states loosened gambling laws. In 2018, the Supreme Court touched off a wave of changes in state laws that led to legal online betting in Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Iowa, Indiana and West Virginia, where it is available on mobile apps and on websites. There is a limited legal option in Mississippi on casinos’ premises.

(Graphic from PLAYUSA) looked at how online gaming has grown in Pennsylvania since the pandemic:

A significant amount of business has shifted from casinos to online platforms in the last year. Online slots, table games, and poker generated $54.4 million in July. Along with online sports betting, internet gaming generated $61.2 million in revenue in July, or nearly 22% of all casino gaming revenue.

Internet gaming generated less than $4 million statewide a year ago in July, just two months after Rivers Casino Philadelphia, then called the SugarHouse Casino, was the first casino in Pennsylvania to launch I-gaming. The timing of I-gaming’s launch was auspicious because online platforms provided the only gaming revenue for casinos during several months of lockdown.

Online slots play has quadrupled since February, but growth seems to be slowing now that the casinos have reopened, said Max Bichsel, vice president of U.S. business for Group.

Sports Illustrated said COVID-19 has “crushed” sports gambling. The sports shutdown happened at just the point in the year when gambling is at its zenith.

The shutdown happened at the worst possible time for sports gamblers and the various entities that take their money. Most estimates, like those from the American Gaming Association, place the amount wagered on the NCAA tournament in the neighborhood of $8.5 billion, accounting for a larger handle than the Super Bowl. And: Since sports betting was legalized in more states this year, with added books in casinos and apps where consumers could wager on sports like college basketball, many believed the industry could have collected its highest-ever windfall, with states taking in a record in corresponding tax revenue.

While pro sports sat on the sidelines, bettors have moved into some fairly bizarre spaces, including betting on simulated games, Bitcoin futures and sports that bookmakers don’t fully understand — including table tennis. Sports Illustrated said some bookmakers report the betting action on simulated computer games rivals a typical Major League Baseball game.

Nearly 75% of U.S. states have either legalized sports wagering or introduced legislation to do so. States generally have been loosening their gambling laws in stages, first allowing lottos and bingo, then casino gaming, then online sports betting.

See where states stand on sports gambling with ESPN’s update.

(From ESPN)

As an aside, a few years back I taught a workshop for the Illinois Broadcasters Association at a gathering in Peoria. I understood that I would be staying at the Paradise Hotel, that is what I told my wife. When I got there, I discovered I would be staying at the Pair-A-Dice Hotel. I recall the tone in my wife’s less-than-enthusiastic voice when I called her from the hotel to explain how I was roughing it. It is a story that came to mind when, while researching this topic, I saw Pair-A-Dice launched an online sportsbook.

Grocery stores said they are seeing people spend a lot less right now. I could have guessed this was coming based on the threefold increase in the number of people coming through our church’s food pantry line every week.

When the stimulus checks were issued this spring, grocery spending skyrocketed. That was partly sparked by a run on essential items as people sheltered in their homes.

In addition to stalled stimulus checks, you probably have noticed that grocery prices have been rising all summer.

Here in Florida where COVID-19 cases have fallen some, the big grocery chain, Publix, started pulling up the one-way arrows from its aisles. Truthfully, I never thought the one-way arrows were very effective anyway.

Publix also stopped wiping down shopping carts and now gives wipes to customers to do it themselves.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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