Legalese — House Arrest

As we are all on what amounts to house arrest, I thought this would be a good time to explain what house arrest means in real pre-trial or sentencing terms.

Like so many different things in the legal world, it has no definite definition.  What does it mean?  “It depends.” What does it depend on?  What the judge says.  House arrest can mean any variety of things.

It can mean a restriction of movement but not no movement.  In that case, you would be allowed to leave your house, but only to go to work, school, medical appointments, and court-related activities like meeting with your probation officer, community service, or treatment programs.  Sometimes, it just means a restriction of time.  You can be out of your house from, say, 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, but you have to be inside at other times.

It can also mean strict house arrest – you can’t leave your house for any reason, or for only strictly outlined reasons like a court hearing or emergency medical care.

How is it enforced?  That also depends.  The least restrictive means is that someone like a probation officer calls in to a land line located at the person’s home and the person has to be available to answer.  More often than not, a device like an ankle monitor is involved.  An ankle monitor is arranged through a bonding company and has a fee attached to it.  Still, people are often willing to pay the fee in exchange for being in their homes instead of jail.  The ankle monitor is connected to a GPS system that sends an alert if you go beyond a certain distance from your home.  It also sends an alert if it is tampered with or removed from your body.

House arrest isn’t available for everybody, and that in and of itself is a matter of some controversy.  Generally, you need a landline phone to ensure location, and/or enough money to pay for the monitoring.  This means that it is only available for people who can afford it, which means that it is disproportionately unavailable for impoverished people.  How we solve that problem is not a question I can answer.

House arrest sounds cushy, and I suppose it is when you compare it to the confines of a jail cell.  However, as we are all learning now that we are having our freedom to leave our homes restricted whenever we want and for whatever reason we want, having to stare at the same four walls day in and day out can be crazy-making, even if we are the ones who decorated those walls.

Judges have difficult decisions to make, especially pre-trial when there has been no conviction.  One of the basic tenets of the American criminal justice system is that we are all innocent until proven guilty.  To hold someone in jail prior to their trial means, effectively, that we are holding an innocent person in jail.  However, sometimes it has to be done.  Judges also have an obligation to protect their communities from potential harm and make sure that the person on trial will come back to court and face their charges.  Judges have to weigh these competing factors in deciding bond and in what form any pre-trial release will take.  Now that judges, too, have been on house arrest, it will hopefully help us have some empathy for those we give these restrictions to and help us to make the right decisions.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only, and all opinions herein are those of the author only.  

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