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Keeping tabs: Electronic monitoring bracelets keep youth offenders from recommitting crimes 

However uncomfortable they are, the bracelets keep youth out of trouble

For two hours a day, Michael props his ankle near an electrical outlet and charges the monitoring bracelet he's worn 24/7 for a year and a half. However inconvenient and uncomfortable the equipment is, the 18-year-old says it's keeping him out of trouble.

Michael, who chose not to give his full name for this story, is one of the 400 or so offenders the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's Electronic Monitoring Unit now tracks using the bracelets, which are linked to a computer program that retroactively checks the scene of a crime to see if any previous offenders were in the area when the crime was committed. The unit is notified every time someone wearing a bracelet violates his or her restrictions. An officer calls the criminal or seeks him or her out to give a warning or to take them to jail.

The unit began in 2007 as a way to keep tabs on violent criminals, using the bracelets mostly on them, but has shifted gears within the last few years to help prevent young, one-time offenders from slipping into a cycle of crime and punishment.

And it seems to be working. The unit says the bracelets have curbed crime — Michael being an example of their effectiveness. The Department of Juvenile Justice, which is tasked with preventing youth crime, has even passed along some of its more serious cases to the unit.

Dave Scheppegrel, who created the unit and worked in it until he retired from CMPD in August, began seeing how many young people were going to jail for breaking into cars and homes and robbing people. He decided the monitoring devices could be used as a preventative measure — keeping young people accused of crimes where they need to be, when they need to be there. Most are used to enforce curfew and some can be programmed to keep offenders out of areas they've caused trouble in before.

"Most break-ins are done by kids under 21, first-time offenders," Scheppegrel says. "If you touch a stove and find out it's hot, you won't touch it again. These kids were finding it to be a little warm and they weren't afraid to go back to it."

Michael was arrested for breaking and entering just after his 17th birthday and has been wearing his ankle bracelet while he awaits trial in a court system pushed past capacity.

He says that he fell in with the wrong crowd while he was 16, which led to problems with his mother. They were always close, but during some arguments she would threaten to kick him out of the house. That's when he started thinking he was going to need some quick money. He was picked up by police and charged with breaking and entering.

He got it harder than some of his peers. While a majority of those wearing monitoring devices are kept to a curfew that allows them to roam the city between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., a strict judge placed Michael on full-time house arrest. He was allowed to attend high school until he graduated last year and is now waiting until after his trial to apply for college.

Michael says he has tried to stay positive, but it's evident he's a little frustrated with his predicament. "It beats jail but at the same time, it doesn't. You are confined to this one place," adding that he's grateful he's at least allowed to choose what he eats and when he sleeps.

Michael is also thankful he can still play video games and have friends over, but a lot of his old friends don't come around anymore. "It's shown me a lot and taught me a lot," he says of the bracelet.

He has become close with Officer Adrian Johnson of the Electronic Monitoring Unit since going through a voluntary Life Skills class for young offenders held at the Urban League offices. Johnson recruits young people wearing the devices to attend the class once a week for a month. Brian Gainey, an Urban League member, ran the first class in January. Nine young men showed up, and none were all too enthusiastic to be there. Gainey, 30, spoke about the "hood mentality" he was obsessed with as a young man having run-ins with the law in High Point and then Charlotte before meeting a mentor.

None of the attendees seemed ready to voice their opinions, so Gainey took it upon himself to show examples of the mentality he spoke of. He told a couple of guys in the class to find one of their favorite songs on their phones, and he played a few out loud. The first song was by Young Jeezy and began with, "I can show you what to cook like," a reference to crack.

The next song blared out, "Ridin' hard every day making sure I ain't broke." A member of the class recognized the rapper as Lil Snupe, who died last year in a shooting over bets placed on a video game.

Gainey has turned his life around and is now married with an 8-year-old son. He wants to effect that change onto others.

"People that society is ready to condemn can really turn it around if society is ready to work with them," he says. "I know because I was that guy."

Michael stays in touch with Johnson on a weekly basis. He says he has been more selective of friends, not letting those who cause trouble to come around him. His mother also stays in touch with Johnson, begging him to keep her son on the ankle bracelet once his trial is over. She's only half-joking, scared to see her son fall back into bad habits.

But the devices have to come off eventually, and offenders must fend for themselves once their case has been settled. Michael says he plans to keep his head down and avoid jail time.

"I figure if I am going through school and working there won't be much time to get into any trouble," he says. "I suppose there are 24 hours in a day, though."

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