What is House Arrest & How Does it Work?

In the American justice system several different types of sentences are offered by the courts, varying in degree of severity and dependent on the specifics of the crime committed. One type of lesser sentence is house arrest. This is given to some offenders as an alternative to jail time or prison sentencing. When ordered to stay under house arrest, the individual must stay confined to their house and wear an electronic monitoring device to ensure they are sticking to the terms of confinement.

In this article, we answer all your questions on house arrest laws in the US, including more detail about what it is and how it works.

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Legal Definition of House Arrest

In the American legal system, the definition of house arrest is defined as confinement to the offender’s home or another specified location as an alternative to jail sentencing. The phrase is used interchangeably with several others, including home detention, home confinement, and electronic monitoring. It is usually only seen as an appropriate sentence for first-time, non-violent offenses. Pretrial house arrest may also be issued to help confine offenders before official sentencing and conviction at trial.

Despite the name, home imprisonment does not mean the individual cannot leave their house at all. Instead, they have a strict curfew and can only go within a certain radius of their home to carry out specific pre-approved activities at agreed locations. For example, house arrest laws allow offenders to attend places of work and education, doctors’ appointments, and meet with their probation officer. This allows the offender to serve time and live a restricted life as punishment for their crime while maintaining their place in society.

How Does House Arrest Work?

For a house arrest sentence to be issued, the criminal prosecutor usually issues a recommendation to the judge. It will then be determined by the courts whether or not this is a suitable sentence. Generally, a house arrest sentence will only be given to first-time offenders who are deemed as low-risk criminals. Moreover, as offenders remain an integral part of society, this penalty will only be handed out for non-violent crimes that pose minimal risk to the community. Examples include criminals convicted of fraud or embezzlement. On the other hand, house arrest will never be offered for serious crimes such as rape or murder.

During sentencing, a house arrest agreement will be determined. Each US state has its own statutes and guidelines regarding the use of house arrest. Therefore, the restrictions will vary on a state-by-state basis. In addition, the details of the crime can impact the house arrest rules, with more freedom being offered to lower-risk criminals. However, in most cases house arrest rules are pretty standard, including the following:

  • Probation Officer: Each offender must be assigned a probation officer whose job is to monitor the offender and check that they are adhering to the terms of their sentence. As part of testing compliance, the offender must attend regular meetings with their probation officer. The officer may also conduct surprise visits to ensure that all rules are being followed.
  • Drugs & Alcohol: While under home detention, the offender must abstain from alcohol and drug use. The probation officer has the right to check the home of the offender for prohibited substances and report back to the courts if any drugs or alcohol are found at the property. The offender must also partake in random drug testing when requested to do so.
  • GPS Ankle Bracelet: While on house arrest, the offender is usually required to wear an electronic tag or bracelet that contains a GPS device and continually monitors their location. This monitoring device has to be worn at all times. This includes when inside their home or when carrying out pre-approved activities such as attending places of work or education.
  • Evening Curfew: An evening curfew will be issued, after which time the offender must be within their home or other specified location of confinement. This will vary on a case-by-case basis depending on the other responsibilities of the offender. For example, if working an evening shift, the offender will have a later curfew than someone that works 9am to 5pm.

In addition to the above, house arrest sentencing often includes community service as part of the punishment for the crime. Once the terms are agreed upon, any breach or violation could result in jail time for the offender.

Can I Leave my Home at all While Under House Arrest?

The term “house arrest” can be misleading. Despite the phrase implying complete home confinement, the offender is still able to leave their home while under house arrest. However, the reason for leaving their place of residence must have been discussed and pre-approved in the court of law. When leaving their home, the offender must also keep their monitoring device on. A set location for the activity must be given to ensure the offender’s location and activity can be accurately managed. After carrying out the permitted activity, the individual must return to their home immediately. Additionally, these breaks from house arrest can only occur at set hours of the day, and visiting pre-approved locations outside of curfew would classify as a breach of contract.

Some examples of situations commonly accepted as approved reasons for leaving the home while under house arrest include attending:

  • Places of work or education
  • All medical appointments
  • Counseling and therapy appointments
  • Meetings with probation officers
  • Community service duties
  • Drug testing
  • Church or another place of worship

The above list is not exhaustive and occasionally more freedom of movement will be issued. However, this will be discussed on a case-by-case basis and is not guaranteed. On the other hand, some home arrest sentences carry more strict restrictions. The most severe form of home confinement is known as “house incarceration.” If an offender is issued with this sentence, they are restricted to stay at home 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. The only time they can leave would be to attend court appearances or medical appointments.

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What Happens if I Violate Terms of House Arrest?

Any violation of the terms of house arrest will result in some form of punishment. Authorities can easily tell when this occurs due to the GPS continually monitoring the offender’s precise location. When leaving their home for anything other than to attend a pre-approved appointment or activity, authorities will be noted. The device can detect any tampering or attempted removal, which is also considered a violation of house arrest.

For minor breaches, the probation officer may issue a warning. However, violating any conditions of house detention can result in immediate arrest and a court order. The judge then decides on an appropriate punishment, usually through the recommendation of the probation officer. The penalties are entirely dependent on the type of violation. For example, an adjusted curfew or a limitation on pre-approved activities may be suitable for minor violations. Courts are also more likely to be forgiving if the offender broke their terms for an urgent situation, such as a family medical emergency. However, any breach could lead to the offender having to serve the remainder of their sentence in jail or prison.

How Long Can House Arrest Last?

The length of house arrest depends on the crime committed – for lesser crimes the sentence may only last for two weeks, whereas more serious times could see the offender under home detention for twelve months. For pretrial house arrest, the order will only last until the trial is over and an official sentence has been determined.


Home imprisonment is common in the US for first-time, non-violent offenses as an alternative to time in jail. This helps the country save money and space in prisons. However, all home arrest sentences do come with strict terms which must be followed, otherwise the offender may have to serve the remainder of their sentence behind bars. 

Article by Mariia Synytska

Mariia Synytska is Content Lead at Lawrina, a legal portal that projects innovation in law. Mariia manages the content on the website, takes interviews with lawyers and law experts, and looks for the interesting topics for Lawrina's audience. If you would like to be a blogger for Lawrina, you can contact Mariia for all the details via email m.synytska@lawrina.com.

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