House arrest is a form of what the law refers to as “alternative sentencing” when someone has been convicted of a crime. It’s pretty much what it sounds like – the criminal is confined to his home or other residential location for a period of time rather than to prison or jail. Some states allow a probation or parole officer to immediately locate and arrest offenders who violate the terms of their house arrest. Other states require that the court issue an arrest warrant first.
So what can an offender do without violating the terms of his house arrest? The simple answer is: not much. The exact terms are typically set by a judge within certain state guidelines, and they can be more strict or less severe on a case-by-case basis.
How House Arrest Works
House arrest requires that the convict submit to some form of electronic monitoring to prove his location within his residence.
Basic electronic transmission is what most people think of when they hear the term “house arrest.” This involves a home monitoring unit, and the convict wears an ankle monitor. These two pieces of equipment work in tandem to send signals to a monitoring agency 24/7. They tell the agency exactly where the convict is and whether he’s done anything to the ankle monitor in an effort to slip away undetected. Some of these systems are also equipped with photographic capabilities. If the agency calls the convict, the system will snap a picture of him answering the telephone.
Some monitoring is done by GPS. It depends on the state and the severity of the crime involved. This system is considered more advanced because it allows the agency to track the convict and locate him on a map should he leave his residence. It uses cell networks, towers and satellites to transmit data to the monitoring agency. (Refs 2, 3)
Read More: What Is the Law About House Arrest?
When Is House Arrest Ordered?
House arrest typically isn’t a sentencing judge’s first choice for punishment. It’s considered a privilege and is normally requested by the defendant’s attorney, who would then have to establish to the court’s satisfaction that it’s a good idea and why. Sometimes, house arrest is issued as a condition of bail. The exact criteria can vary by state or even by county.
The Extent of Home Confinement
Is the convict ever permitted to leave his residence? Sometimes, if it’s approved by the court. More often than not, this permission occurs on an isolated basis for a particular event, but blanket permissions can also be granted.
Prisoners – particularly minors – can usually leave home to go to school. Leaving the residence to work can go either way. Some states and courts allow it, while others do not. Prisoners can leave to see a health care provider if they have medical needs, although this typically requires pre-approval in the absence of an emergency.
Convicts might be permitted to attend counseling in cases where drug or alcohol abuse are involved. They can leave home to perform community service as part of their sentences, as well as to attend other court-mandated appearances or activities such as meeting with a probation or parole officer. They might be permitted to leave home to take care of certain family responsibilities or to attend religious services.
Visits from close family members may be permitted, but this depends on the convicted individual's specific situation and factors like his state's laws. This also applies to visits from friends. Typically, the court has the discretion to state whether an individual on house arrest may have visitors and if so, any restrictions on his visitors. Before visiting a friend or loved one on house arrest, a would-be visitor should get permission from the convicted individual's assigned officer.
Drugs and Alcohol Monitoring
Some electronic transmission systems are equipped with breathalyzers. Prisoners are required to breathe into them periodically to prove that they haven’t consumed any alcoholic beverages. The monitor then transmits this data back to the agency. Some monitors measure alcohol concentration in the blood 24/7. These devices are worn in addition to the ankle monitor that keeps track of location.
Even when a transmission system isn’t equipped with a breathalyzer, a court representative might turn up unannounced at the residence for random testing. Drug and alcohol use is not permitted during house arrest, even if the underlying crime did not involve substance abuse, and testing frequency can be increased when issues of abuse do exist.
House Arrest of Minors
Offenders who are minors are more or less subject to the same rules as adults, but they’re sometimes allowed to leave home when they’re in the company of a parent or legal guardian. Some states require that the parent check with the probation officer first, and if the child should break the rules, the parent is obligated to report it to the authorities.
Minors typically can’t have friends stop by to visit, and they can only engage in phone communications with an approved list of people.
Offenders can usually leave home for certain reasons or events, but it requires court approval and special permission.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.