What Is House Arrest?

Closeup of a man's feet wearing an ankle bracelet.
You may have heard of someone being “put on house arrest”, but what exactly does that mean? Contrary to popular belief, it actually has nothing to do with being arrested. House arrest is a form of punishment where a person is confined to their home or house. In addition to their confinement, a person on house arrest is typically given an ankle bracelet, or electronic monitoring system, so that their movements can be tracked. Being on house arrest is considered an alternative form of punishment to a prison sentence when the crime committed is less serious in nature.


What Is House Arrest?

House arrest is the confinement to a person’s home or other location as an alternative to a jail sentence or prison sentence. It is a form of punishment, just like probation or incarceration. When someone is sentenced to house arrest, it means that, for a period of time, they must remain in their home or on their property. Rather than keeping them away by locking them up in jail, they are “locked up” in their own home.

House arrest, sometimes called home detention or home confinement, is just one option available to the court when sentencing someone in the criminal justice system. House arrest is considered a lesser punishment used to punish someone who is guilty of a less severe crime.

Despite the name, in reality, defendants are not actually forced to stay in their homes at all times. They are allowed to go within a certain radius of their house, usually one that includes their yards and properties. They are also allowed to leave for certain things, such as going to their jobs, court appearances, or medical appointments.

Even though they can go places beyond their homes, there are still many restrictions on their mobility. To make sure they obey this list, defendants on house arrest also have their location monitored with tracking equipment, typically attached to their ankles, called ankle monitors.


How To Qualify For House Arrest

A lawyer writing at her desk in court.

In order to qualify for house arrest, certain criteria must be met. While specific eligibility requirements will vary from state to state, in general, house arrest is recommended to the judge by the prosecutor and/or criminal defense lawyer for low-risk criminals. Then the judge will decide whether to grant house arrest based on the crime charged and the defendant’s criminal history.

In order to receive a house arrest sentence, the crime committed must be either 1. a non-violent crime, such as fraud or embezzlement, or 2. a minor crime or a misdemeanor, such as a DUI or petty theft. Defendants convicted of more serious crimes, such as rape, robbery, arson, or murder, are not eligible for house arrest. Those criminal charges are considered too dangerous, and only a prison sentence, even life in prison, is an appropriate punishment for those offenders.

The second qualification is based on the defendant’s criminal record or lack thereof. In many states, only first-time offenders are eligible for house arrest. This means only defendants who have a clean record with no prior convictions can receive a home confinement sentence.

The reason for these qualifications is simple. First-time offenders and non-violent offenders who commit minor or misdemeanor crimes do not deserve harsh punishment. It is better for them to be kept isolated and confined in a way that allows them to continue to function as part of society. The goal is to decrease the recidivism rates, meaning that by keeping them out of the prison system, they are less likely to offend again in the future.


House Arrest Rules

The way in which house arrest works is that the defendant is given several rules, called conditions, that must be followed. These rules vary depending on the jurisdiction, but typically they include the following:


  • Probation Officer — Defendants who are sentenced to house arrest are assigned a probation officer. This officer monitors them and makes sure they follow all the rules. To do that, they might also have to report to the probation officer and/or expect surprise visits from them. If they break any of the house arrest conditions, the probation officer will report them to the court.
  • Drugs and Alcohol — While under house arrest, offenders have a court order not to use any alcohol or drugs, regardless of their crime. To ensure that they abstain, defendants may be required to go to a clinic for random alcohol testing and random drug testing. Alternatively, they may wear a bracelet and/or patch that is capable of detecting drugs and alcohol in their system.
  • Curfew — A curfew is often decided on a case-by-case basis, depending on the defendant’s lifestyle. Curfews will typically state set times and days when they can go to set locations, such as to work, school, religious services, the grocery store, medical appointments, community service, court appearances, and so on. The route they must take to get to these places is also pre-approved and timed by the court. All other times, especially at night, are considered curfew hours. During curfew times, the defendant must be back at their residence.
  • Electronic monitoring — Another condition of house arrest is electronic monitoring, which tracks the offender’s location and transmits it to law enforcement. It is most commonly worn by the offender on their ankle. This global positioning system (GPS) ankle bracelet must be worn at all times, including when inside their home. They are not allowed to tamper with it or try to take it off.
  • Visitors — Visitors are only allowed during certain hours, and certain visitors may be prohibited depending on the circumstances related to the crime, such as co-defendants.


Violating The Terms Of House Arrest

A defendant signing house arrest paperwork.

House arrest comes with a list of do’s and don’ts that the defendant must abide by. They are not allowed to go to some places; they are allowed to go to others, but only on a certain day, at a certain time, or only for a set amount of time. They must do certain things, like call their probation officer, and they can’t do certain things, like tampering with the electronic monitoring device.

If they break one of these rules, there can be some serious consequences. Because of electronic monitoring, it is easy for law enforcement to catch someone in breach of their house arrest conditions. Also, these monitoring systems are high-tech, so any attempt to tamper with or remove the bracelet is also electronically reported and would be considered a violation.

Minor violations, such as being a minute or two late for curfew or crossing the perimeter of the house confinement radius by a few inches, would likely just result in a warning from the probation officer or judge. They may decide to make the hours of curfew longer or the radius of confinement smaller as a penalty. However, more serious violations could end with a probation violation where the house arrest punishment is revoked completely, and the defendant receives jail time or prison.


The Bottom Line

House arrest, or home detention, is a form of punishment in criminal law where a person convicted of a crime is sentenced to the confines of their home rather than to jail or prison. It is often used for first-time offenders who commit minor, non-violent crimes. They are given an electronic monitoring device to track their location and make sure they obey the conditions of house arrest. If they violate these conditions, they could have their house arrest revoked and may have to serve the remainder of their sentence incarcerated.


Frequently Asked Questions


Can you have visitors on house arrest?

Yes. Generally speaking, visitors are allowed when someone is on house arrest. However, there are some restrictions provided by the court, such as when visitors are allowed. Typically, overnight visitors are not permitted unless they also live at the residence. Also, certain visitors may not be allowed depending on the circumstances of the case. For instance, co-defendants would not be allowed to visit someone under house arrest.


How far can you go on house arrest?

“House arrest” can be misleading as people are allowed to leave their homes even if they are on house arrest. In fact, there is typically a designated radius around the house that includes the person’s outdoor property where they can still go. Depending on the technology, this could be anywhere between 50 and 150 feet. They are also allowed to go to places like work, appointments, places of worship, and other locations that are pre-approved by the court. They are only allowed to visit those places at given times and on certain days. They must have the electronic monitoring on while they are out of the house.


What is the average length of a house arrest sentence?

The length of a house arrest sentence can vary depending on the severity of the case. It can be as short as a week or two and as long as a year or more. There is also such a thing as house arrest on pretrial release. In those instances, the criminal case has not yet been resolved, and rather than have the defendant wait in jail before their trial; they are put on house arrest. In these instances, the house arrest sentence will last as long as the case is pending.


What is the difference between house arrest and prison?

Both house arrest and prison are forms of punishment in the criminal justice system. Both involve some form of confinement. However, a prison sentence is much more serious than house arrest. A prison is a specific state-run institution where convicted felons are sent to live for a period of time. They act as both punishments for the criminal and protection for society from the criminal. House arrest is an alternative to prison, where it allows the offender more freedom and comfort. The goal of house arrest is to keep them out of the prison system and to allow them to continue to function as part of society by allowing them to continue to live in their homes, work at their jobs, and so on.


What are the advantages of house arrest?

House arrest is largely praised as an alternative sentencing option to prison. For one thing, it is significantly cheaper for someone to be on house arrest than to be incarcerated. It is averaged that a year on home monitoring costs $6,000, whereas a year in prison costs $23,000. Also, the offender on house arrest typically bears this cost, as opposed to the general public, through taxes. Also, house arrest is a way of deterring low-risk criminals from a life of crime. Keeping them out of prison and in the community helps to reduce recidivism rates. They are able to keep their jobs, which allows for them to pay restitution related to their case. They can also be court-ordered to get any sort of treatment, such as drug rehabilitation or anger management, to address underlying issues related to the crime.


What are the disadvantages of house arrest?

It is necessary for house arrest to use technology in order to be successful. Of course, this heavy reliance on technology can be seen as a disadvantage. Bracelets can malfunction, for example, and allow offenders to go beyond the set boundaries. Not having them in prison could potentially cause a public safety issue and provide the defendant an opportunity to offend again. However, it is necessary for probation officers to use technology in order to be successful. Of course, this heavy reliance on technology can be seen as a disadvantage. Bracelets can malfunction, for example, and allow offenders to go beyond the set boundaries. Not having them in prison could potentially cause a public safety issue and provide the defendant an opportunity to offend again.


What are house arrest ankle monitors capable of?

All ankle monitoring services are waterproof and are capable of withstanding high levels of water pressure. This allows for them to always be worn, even when the person is bathing. They also need to be charged for an average of 2 hours each day. Most ankle monitors used in house arrest cases are now equipped with a global positioning system (GPS), meaning that the wearer’s location is always known. Some monitoring devices are also equipped with alcohol detection technology called SCRAM. Newer GPS ankle monitoring services have microphones and electronic surveillance capabilities as well, but it is extremely rare to find them used as recording devices.