Prison Reform Expands to High Tech

Posted on March 7, 2011


Author: Stan Moody

What is a bankrupt state to do besides denigrating public employees for insisting that their raided pension funds be vested? An option being kicked around even by conservatives is to turn a million or so convicted felons onto the streets.

Weighing in as the third highest budget item at state levels behind human services and education, the $60 – $70 billion spent annually in the US on incarceration is about to go under the knife. Coupled with recidivism and parole violation rates of nearly 70% nationwide, interest has emerged to kill two jailbirds, so to speak, with one stone – high technology.

Here is a capsulation of how this is unfolding.

In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich (R), facing an $8 billion budget shortfall, has targeted the cost of corrections as “low hanging fruit,” a perhaps unfortunate choice of words when applied to prison culture. Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott (R) seeks to cut $1 billion from corrections – 25% of his deficit.

Nevada’s Gov. Nathan Deal (R) has joined the chorus advocating for prison alternatives for non-violent offenders through the strengthening of probation monitoring and controls. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) of California, faced with a whopping $25 billion deficit and a federal court order to release 46,000 prisoners due to overcrowding and substandard conditions, has a plan to send non-violent offenders to rehabilitation and save $1.6 billion.

A Pew study on Arkansas prisons projects that the next decade will require an additional $1.1 billion for prisons, prompting panic in the Natural State with an unnaturally bloated prison system.

Not to be outdone, and in the classic contrarian style we have learned to expect from Gov. Scott Walker (R) of Wisconsin, his budget calls for a repeal of cost-saving prison reform measures toward what he dubs “truth in sentencing” – ratcheting up minimum sentences, a move projected to increase costs.

Prison reform in the US, with 25% of the world’s prisoners and only 5% of its population, is way overdue. Technology may be one of a number of ways out of this quagmire in which we find ourselves.

Emerging on the market at lease prices of $5 – $10 per day are tamper-proof ankle bracelets operating on the GPS system and providing constant monitoring with cell phone alerts. Not only does this hold promise as a boon to an understaffed probation system, but it will be somewhat of a comfort to crime victims, many of whom may be public service retirees stripped of their pensions.

When offenders violate a stay-away distance, the device sends an instant alert signal to the victim and authorities as well as to the GPS’s monitoring staff, on call 24/7. Individual monitors can be programmed for home confinement and approved patterns of daily movement.

It is hoped that this will lead to split sentencing favorable to select offenders with shorter prison terms and longer probation periods. Other applications would be to reduce the likelihood of re-offending upon release. As well, some employers may be more willing to hire released offenders if they are being monitored.

The idea is not without its pitfalls, however, principal among which is Willy Horton-type political backlash in the inevitable event of an ex-offender throwing caution to the wind and violating while Big Brother is watching.

The devices have been tweaked to detect drugs like marihuana and alcohol through the skin and to signal when a user is attempting to tamper with the device. Extreme ideas include detection of sexual arousal. The prospect of the police raiding a suburban neighborhood to capture a guy popping a beer from his refrigerator is daunting. More daunting is the prospect of a buzzer sounding in the barber shop.

One of the most promising markets appears to be the bail market for less violent, first time offenders. Courts may be more inclined to impose bail, avoiding enormous costs and vastly reducing chances of reoffending while on bail.

The idea is not without interest on the part of government, where depending on state employees for corrections service has become too unwieldy to sustain. As a result, there are a handful of companies offering these ankle-monitoring devices with mixed but growing reception.

Whether it is with high technology or private prisons, prison reform is coming, with high recidivism rates and out-of-control budgets leading the charge.