When someone is charged as a result of intimate partner violence (IPV), it’s a challenge to ensure that the survivor both feels and is safe while also protecting the civil liberties of the person who has been charged; especially in the weeks or months between the laying of the charge and the end of the trial. Some accused people who pose a significant risk are held without bail; others who pose less of a risk are released, with conditions, one of which is almost always to have no contact with the survivor.
Unfortunately, neither option works particularly well from any perspective. it is expensive to keep people in jail. It imposes a significant limit on the liberty of the accused, at a time when they are still presumed innocent.
Releasing those who have been charged with an IPV-related offence often doesn’t work well for the survivors, who too often report that they are subjected to ongoing and even heightened abuse. The abuser may engage in stalking behaviours, threaten to take the children, draw in other family members to threaten the woman with harm.
Some women say it feels as though it is their liberty that is being limited: they do not feel safe when they go to work, to the store, to their children’s school, so they stop leaving their homes because of their fears about what their partner might do to them. Even so, they are not safe, as more and more abuse takes place electronically.
Tech to the rescue?
Over the past 20 years, six countries – England, France, Spain, Portugal, Australia and the United States – have implemented electronic monitoring in attempts to find the right balance between keeping survivors safe and feeling safe and ensuring the civil liberties of those charged with IPV-related offences are protected. Beginning in the spring of 2022, Quebec will join the ranks when it introduces a GPS tracking system in these cases.
There are two basic approaches to this strategy. One, called electronic monitoring (EM), tracks the movement of the accused through an electronic bracelet (that he cannot remove), with a signal being sent to the appropriate authority if his movements breach the conditions he is supposed to be following. In other words, if he moves outside the permitted area or into a prohibited area, the authorities will be notified and can take action.
The other, called bilateral electronic monitoring (BEM), is more interactive. It tracks the geographic relationship between the accused and the survivor. The accused wears a bracelet, and the survivor carries a notification device. When the accused gets too close to the survivor, a notification is sent to her as well as to the authorities, who then respond to her location. It is a version of this approach that Quebec will be using.
Because I am suspicious of apparent quick fixes when it comes to ensuring women’s safety, I decided to do a little research to help me think through whether GPS tracking is a good idea in cases of IPV. While I did find some research, most of it was more than 10 years old and much of it was conducted by companies that provide the technology, making the conclusions more than a little suspect.
A comprehensive study commissioned by the Quebec government and conducted recently by two professors of criminology at the University de Montreal is not available in English, so I was only able to review a short summary that appeared in The Lawyer’s Daily:
“the bracelets increase complainants’ sense of safety and spawn a ‘feeling’ of empowerment and autonomy, while allowing for a more focused and optimized police response.”
This conclusion is reinforced in the words of Christine Giroux, a survivor of IPV who spoke at the December 1st media conference at which Quebec announced its plan:
Imagine being so afraid of someone that you only ventured outside 10 times in four years! Then, imagine the sense of freedom at being able to step outside your front door with no fear, walk through a park without looking over your shoulder, have dinner with friends without worrying about your or their safety.
It’s hard not to be persuaded by Giroux’s words alone.
Do we know enough?
However, many questions remain unanswered. Here are just a few for all of us to think about.
How will courts decide whether keeping an accused in custody or releasing him with an electronic bracelet is appropriate?
If someone is dangerous enough to need a bracelet, is he not dangerous enough to be kept behind bars?
What does requiring someone who has not yet been convicted of a crime to submit to electronic monitoring do to the presumption of innocence?
What about people’s privacy rights? Where will the data collected by electronic monitoring be stored, how will it be accessed and by whom? Will it ever be destroyed?
If a survivor declines to participate, what impact will this have on how she is treated by police if her partner attacks her?
No technology is foolproof. What about malfunctions in the equipment? What if the accuser finds a way to outsmart the technology or remove the bracelet?
Will the technology even work for people who live in rural and remote parts of the country, where cell and internet service can be spotty at best? Will police response time be quick enough to be helpful?
Will the technology work in a power outage?
What are potential unintended negative consequences, especially for women from marginalized communities?
Fewer than 25% of women report IPV to the police, and not all of those reports lead to charges, which means the vast majority of women will not be affected by electronic monitoring, no matter how successful it is.
Quebec is taking a potentially positive step with this initiative, but responding to IPV and keeping women safe requires a multifaceted approach. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that one new idea solves the whole problem.