Electronic monitoring (EM) serves as an intermediate sanction. First proposed for use during the 1960s in an effort to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill in Boston, this sanction has grown into a useful, typically cheaper, alternative to incarceration. The first program officially designated to monitor drunk drivers began in New Mexico in 1983. As of 2009, in the United States over 1,500 programs existed supervising more than 200,000 offenders.
EM programs include the supervision of offenders through any electronic device (usually an ankle bracelet) that tracks the whereabouts of offenders either intermittently or continuously. Upon being referred to an electronic monitoring program, offenders must agree to pay the required fee set by the courts (sometimes offered on a sliding scale). Offenders placed on EM are typically supervised by EM officers. These officers are responsible for ensuring compliance with the court mandates, investigating violations, reporting back to the court, and ensuring equipment fit and usage. Unlike other officers of the court (e.g., probation or parole) that assume some level of rehabilitative function, these officers are charged with offender management and control instead of care.
EM programs, unlike other alternatives, were designed to be used in conjunction with other community-based programs such as house arrest, curfews, community service, and the like. Offenders may be placed in EM either pretrial or as a direct sentence for probation or parole through a community or corrections-based program. Electronic monitoring has been used with a variety of offenders including sex offenders, violent offenders, domestic violence offenders, gang members, and drug offenders. While each of these programs differs by the purpose of their administration, the supervision responsibility remains the same.
Electronic monitoring technologies include a host of mechanisms for monitoring offenders including eye scans, remote alcohol detection (SMART), biometrics, and kiosk reporting. The two most popular forms are radio frequency (RF) and global positioning systems (GPS). For the purposes of this essay, RF and GPS technologies will be reviewed. RF devices may be either active or passive monitoring systems. Active RF monitoring systems require the offenders to have access to a telephone landline in order to verify their location. In these instances, the offenders’ daily approved schedule is programmed into the monitoring device. The offenders receive random telephone calls throughout the day when they are supposed to be home.
Once the participant answers the call, a signal is sent from the battery-powered ankle bracelet, weighing one to four ounces, to a computer monitored location where the date and time of the response is recorded. For RF active systems, also called RF monitoring, a continuous signal is transmitted from a box to the bracelet two or more times per minute. Should an offender go beyond the boundaries of their residence (ranging from 35 to 500 feet), the signal will be broken. Information will then be transmitted to the EM monitor to let the officer know the offender has violated their conditions of RM. Unlike GPS technology, RF monitoring does not allow supervisors to know the exact coordinates of the offenders’ location, only that the signal had been broken.
Global positioning system technology relies on the use of the 24 military satellites or other terrestrial devices to know the exact coordinates of the offenders. At least 44 states have enacted legislation allowing for the use of GPS monitoring for the most serious offenders, of which nearly 23 percent (n=10) require lifetime EM for certain sex offenders. There are three types of GPS monitors: active, passive, and hybrid. Active monitors provide a continuous signal from the transmitter to a central location. Passive monitors require the offender to continuously wear the device; however, data are only transferred to the central location upon placing the equipment to the charging station. Hybrid monitors are a combination of the two, sending out intermittent predetermined tracking signals to the transmitter from the central location. The hybrid system allows for more continuous contact and diminishes the possibility for equipment error due to edifices, inclement weather, or terrain. Because of the expense of the GPS technology many agencies combine the two forms of RF and GPS, limiting the use of GPS to the most serious offenders or those who are required by statute to be supervised using the specific form of technology.
Arguments in Favor of Electronic Monitoring
First, electronic monitoring is a cheaper alternative to traditional incarceration. On average, it costs between $20,000 and $30,000 per year to incarcerate a single offender. For example, in California the average cost to incarcerate one inmate for one year in 2010–11 was $45,006 versus $13,125.40 to supervise one sex offender parolee on GPS, thus resulting in a cost savings of $31,880.60 per year. In some states, the cost differential is as much as six times greater to incarcerate an offender compared to electronic monitoring. Further estimates of the expanded use of GPS technology suggest an annual reduction in crime would constitute “$481.1 billion in cost savings.” Further, by reducing the length of prison sentences from 85 to 50 percent of time served, the cost–benefit ratio to citizens “would be a gain of $12.70 for every dollar expended on GPS technology.”
The second argument put forth by proponents of EM programs is that the public supports their use. In a study of the public perception of sex offenders placed on GPS monitoring, findings suggest that, in general, the public is both supportive of GPS monitoring and it does appear to promote perceptions of safety in neighborhoods. However, proximity to sex offenders placed on GPS monitoring negates perceived feelings of safety. For example, as criminal activity increases in a community, the perceived support for GPS monitoring increases, while communities with lower incidents of criminal behavior offer less support. Studies on attitudes of college students toward electronic monitoring indicate that while white students view electronic monitoring as a sufficient deterrent to crime, they still believe it is too lenient. Non-white students, however, contend that EM programs are effective yet severe, turning the home into a prison. They further note that EM programs are more beneficial for the wealthy because the living arrangements are nicer than for the poor.
The third and most compelling argument for maintaining EM in the community is the reduction in recidivism. Overall, EM programs provide an opportunity to maintain public safety while adequately punishing and supervising offenders in the community. GPS-supervised offenders are less likely to abscond, and when compared to a matched controlled group of prisoners less likely to recidivate. Further, research indicates that early detection of violations on EM devices has resulted in a decrease in recidivism by 94.7 percent compared to an incarcerated population. A study in Florida comparing EM-supervised offenders to an incarcerated population found that failure rates for the EM population were significantly less than those confined, while the recidivism rates were reduced to 31 percent.
Arguments Against Electronic Monitoring
With any benefit of supervising offenders under electronic technologies, so too arise concerns generated from opponents of these alternatives. The first argument against EM programs is the net-widening conundrum. Research indicates that many of the offenders placed on community-based alternatives are designated as low-risk offenders. Many offenders, therefore, would have received probation or another sanction had the EM option not existed. The second concern generated from EM programs is the possibility of equipment failure. These failures can include signal loss on GPS devices, equipment removal or tampering, and battery failure. Ineffective equipment may result in participants receiving technical violations for time violation, area violations, or other failures. The end result of these mishaps may be the revocation of the community alternative and placement back into an institution.
The third argument against operating an EM program is the possibility for discrimination against the poor or those who do not own a telephone landline. This may also be true for individuals who subscribe to various services that may interfere with the use of the technology such as call forwarding, call waiting, call blocking, answering machines, cordless telephones, and cell phones, or for those who reside in more remote areas that experience continual difficulty because of defective wiring. Further, GPS technology may be interrupted because of terrain, inclement weather, or other physical structures that may interfere with the signal.
A fourth argument against the use of EM technologies is the possibility for increased workload for officers using GPS. Probation and parole officers indicate that supervising offenders with GPS technology adds to their workload, particularly because of the increase in the number of technical violation alerts, necessary home visits, training, and employment verification. This is particularly troublesome given that most of the alerts are for nonviolations as opposed to real infractions. Thus, many EM officers may become desensitized to the reports and may overlook real violations. Likewise, supervision goals are altered to include more punitive measures.
Finally, offenders placed under EM supervision argue that these programs make it difficult to either obtain or maintain social ties and employment. For example, research asking offenders to compare their experiences on electronic monitoring following a stay in jail report they view EM programs to be controlling, yet rehabilitative by nature. Within this context they further acknowledge diminished opportunity for social relationships, threatened financial status because of the difficulty in finding and keeping employment, negative effects on partners and family relationships, the invasion of privacy for themselves and those with whom they reside, as well as increased feelings of shame. They further acknowledge that residing in the community does allow them opportunities to participate in rehabilitation programs that might not be offered to them while incarcerated. From an offender’s perspective, completing a shorter amount of time in confined incarceration may be less harmful than remaining in the community on electronic monitoring.
As noted, electronic monitoring is an effective alternative to incarceration. Given the difficult economic times experienced in the United States and abroad, both court and corrections officials (community and institutional) will continue to look for cost-effective tools for punishing and reforming law violators. Thus, while there certainly continues to be a need for improvement in the use of the equipment and respecting the privacy of nonviolators, the ability to reduce recidivism, and assist with gainful employment while obtaining treatment in the community outweighs the cons currently experienced. As noted by a multitude of researchers, the use of GPS technology has allowed corrections to extend the alternative to higher-risk offenders, thus leaving less intrusive options (probation) available for lower-risk offenders.
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