Using technology for smarter punishment

I was reading and loving Dylan Matthews’ Vox post on why we should be using less prisons and more high-tech location monitoring (GPS, etc.) and thinking that this is basically just what my go-to Criminologist, Mark Kleiman, would have ordered.  Of course, at the end, Matthews’ basically says as much.  Kleiman is all about using research to use our criminal justice resources far more efficiently.  And when you consider that prison space is among our scarcest resources, our current use– in addition to being monstrously inhumane by international standards– is also monstrously inefficient.  It’s a great piece (I think just the sort of thing for which Ezra wanted to create Vox) and you should read it, but basically it comes down to the fact that we should save prison for violent offenders, repeat offenders, and those who violate their location monitoring (i.e., high-tech house arrrest).  Of course, that may not sound punitive enough to you, but as far as smart and efficient use of society’s criminal justice resources, it is surely the way to go:

While the idea of house arrest has been around for millennia, it has always suffered from one key defect as a crime control tool: you can escape. Sure, you could place guards on the homes where prisoners are staying, but it’s much easier to secure a prison with a large guard staff than it is a thousand different houses with a guard or two apiece.

Today, we have something better than guards: satellites. The advent of GPS location tracking means it’s now possible for authorities to be alerted the second a confinee leaves their home. That not just enables swift response in the event of escape; it deters escape by making clear to detainees that they won’t get away with it.

Researchers have tested electronic monitoring as an alternative approach to parole, probation, or other criminal punishments that fall short of imprisonment — and it’s been a huge success. An Urban Institute analysis found that electronic monitoring reduces odds of re-arrest by 23.5 percent relative to traditional probation, and a randomized study in Switzerland found major advantages to electronic monitoring compared to mandated community service…

So, if electronic monitoring can work just as well as prison — and keeps prisoners from being physically and sexually assaulted by guards and other inmates, and saves money, and perhaps even allows some inmates to earn a living while serving time — why not switch?

[rapists and murderers, basically]

But the fact of the matter is that rapists and murderers are a distinct minority of the prison population, at least in the United States. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of 2011 only 12.6 percent of state prisoners in 2011 were there for murder, 1.5 percent for negligent manslaughter, and 12.4 percent for rape or sexual assault. That’s only 26.5 percent of the overall prison population. The numbers are even starker in federal prisons: only 3.8 percent of prisoners committed any kind of violent crime.

And here’s Matthew’s brief proposed solution:

A solution

So how’s about this. The US should:

1. Move those imprisoned for offenses short of homicide or sexual assault to GPS-supervised house arrest as soon as is practicable, with a guaranteed, immediate prison stay for those who violate its terms.

2. Reserve prisons for repeat offenders and those who’ve committed truly heinous crimes.

There are obviously other details to be worked out. You wouldn’t want people convicted of domestic violence to be sentenced to home confinement with their victims, for instance; in those cases, some kind of alternate housing would have to be offered to ensure separation.

But if successful, this plan could reduce admissions by at least half, probably much more. Hopefully, this will just be a temporary measure. In principle, it could get to the point technologically where house arrest becomes as hard to escape as prison is. At that point, abolishing prison outright starts to become imaginable. UK home secretary David Blunkett spoke too soon when he referred to electronic monitoring as “prison without bars,” but that dream is attainable. As Kleiman once put it, “My view is that if you know where someone is, you don’t have to put them in the cage.”

I’m sure as hell on board.  It’s great to see that there’s more and more places experimenting with punishment through technology, and very importantly, focusing on the swiftness and certainty of the punishment– the true keys to deterrence– rather than the severity.   Technology as a savior is often oversold, but it is quite clear that it could really do wonders to continue to protect the public, punish the guilty, help rehabilitate the guilty, and do it for far less money than we currently spend.  We’ll always need prisons.  But we sure as hell don’t need them for 1 in every 108 Americans or the 1 in 3 black males who will be imprisoned over a lifetime.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Using technology for smarter punishment

  1. Mike from Canada says:

    I would suggest you might also want to take away any firearms, and any other firearms in the domicile the convicted would be housed in. At least until they get off probation. Perhaps game systems too.

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