Offenders under electronic watch
Authorities expand monitoring of offenders, but other public priorities compete for funds
- By John Moore
- May 28, 2007
The practice of electronically monitoring offenders has grown in recent years as the technology has matured and governments have gained familiarity with it.
Electronic monitoring offers some advantages over incarceration, but governments should also be aware of its limitations, law enforcement experts say.
Authorities use electronic monitoring to keep tabs on offenders who are under house arrest, in pretrial release or on parole. In some cases, electronic methods are used to monitor offenders’ movements within a prison complex. Another application is monitoring sex offenders after their release from prison. The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which President Bush signed into law July 2006, empowers the Justice Department to award grants to help state and local governments outfit sex offenders with electronic monitoring units.
Monitoring began in the mid-1980s with radio frequency identification systems that tracked an offender’s location. Such systems require offenders to wear an anklet fitted with an RFID transponder. The RFID anklet sends signals to an in-home monitoring unit. The unit is attached to phone lines to keep authorities aware of whether the offender is at home. If the offender is not within range of the receiver at the appropriate time, his/her absence is reported via the phone line to a computer that correction officials monitor.
RFID receivers used in electronic monitoring — at least in the case of BI, a company that helped pioneer electronic monitoring — use a standard RJ-11 phone jack. Starting in the late 1990s, monitoring vendors began to offer solutions that use Global Positioning System technology. This approach tracks offenders as they travel beyond their homes.
On the GPS side, improvements in digital cellular networks and greater GPS sensitivity have helped boost its use in managing offenders. Fewer than 2,000 offenders in the United States were monitored via GPS in 2000, said Jim Buck, senior product manager at BI. But now authorities use GPS to monitor as many as 12,000 to 16,000 offenders, Buck said. Nationwide, about 125,000 offenders are monitored electronically through GPS, RFID or a combination of the two.
“It’s certainly growing in market acceptance and use,” Buck said. In April, BI announced that three county governments had selected BI for offender-monitoring systems. The Adult Probation Department in Chester County, Pa., tapped BI for an RFID system to track probationers and pretrial offenders. In California, Merced and Madera counties purchased solutions using GPS. Monitoring offenders
The growth of the prison population is a primary reason that authorities have expanded their use of electronic monitoring. The incarceration rate has leveled off somewhat after sharp increases in the 1980s and 1990s, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. However, the imprisoned population grew an average of 3.3 percent annually from 1995 to the end of 2005. More than 7 million people were on probation, in jail or on parole at the end of 2005, the bureau reported.Cost-effective monitoring
GPS monitoring costs about $9 a day for one offender. In comparison, incarceration can cost more than $63 per day for one offender, according to a representative at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The cost of RFID monitoring is about half that of GPS monitoring. Various district courts electronically monitor a variety of offenders — some of whom are nonviolent, first-time offenders and others who are sex offenders.
Electronic tracking methods must fit the offender, experts say. RFID is a good fit for home monitoring systems. GPS monitoring systems are more versatile and have a longer reach. GPS systems are either passive or active.
With passive GPS, an offender carries a GPS unit throughout the day and docks the unit into a charging stand after returning home. From there, the GPS data is collected and relayed via landline telephone to a host computer that corrections officials monitor, Buck said. An active system uses a cellular communication capability in the GPS unit to call in the offender’s position.Limitations of e-monitoring
Buck said more aggressive tracking with GPS is appropriate for sex offenders and people deemed high-flight risks. The Walsh Act specifically calls for sex offender-monitoring units to employ GPS and cellular technology as a condition for receiving the Justice Department’s state and local government grants.
In addition, Proposition 83, which passed last year, calls for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to provide GPS monitoring for high-risk sex offenders.
Electronic monitoring offers some advantages, but governments should also be aware of its limitations, said Matthew DeMichele, senior research associate at the American Probation and Parole Association, an affiliate of the Council of State Governments.
“We need to understand the realistic implications of applying GPS,” he said.
For example, using GPS in an attempt to prevent sex crimes against children “may or may not get at the heart of the matter,” DeMichele said. He pointed to Bureau of Justice Statistics figures that show the vast majority of crimes committed against children involved perpetrators known to the victims.
A 2000 bureau report indicates that a family member or acquaintance perpetrated 93 percent of sexual assaults against children. Strangers committed only 7 percent of the assaults.
DeMichele wrote a paper on electronic monitoring in 2007 with Brian Payne, chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at Georgia State University, and Deeanna Button of Old Dominion University. The authors said electronic monitoring complements other supervision tools and raises the likelihood of an offender completing treatment and avoiding excluded zones.
But liability concerns must be weighed. Active GPS tracking lets authorities track offenders in near real time, DeMichele said. But what happens if an offender is in an exclusion zone — such as near a school for instance — and a police office, for whatever reason, doesn’t receive an alert or is unable to respond?
“Who is liable?” DeMichele asked. “Does [GPS] provide a false sense of security? There are a lot of issues that legislatures have not been considering.”
A few studies on the effectiveness of electronic monitoring exist, but they reach opposite conclusions. For example, a 2006 Florida State University study of serious offenders placed on home confinement found that “both radio frequency and [GPS] monitoring significantly reduce the likelihood of technical violations, reoffending and absconding.” A 2002 study, “The Effectiveness of Electronic Monitoring with Violent Male Parolees,” found that electronic monitoring had no effect on recidivism. However, members of the sex offender subgroup of the general sample were less likely to return to prison.
Additional studies may prove more conclusive. The Walsh Act requires the attorney general to report to Congress on the cost-effectiveness of electronic monitoring compared with alternatives. Those alternatives include civil commitment. About 20 states run civil commitment programs in which sex offenders who are deemed to be still dangerous are confined in centers after release from prison. Budget barriers
The cost of electronic monitoring is prohibitive for some jurisdictions. Probation and parole officers in smaller towns may not be able to afford GPS tracking, DeMichele said.
“Public funds, in general, are finite,” he said. “Budgets are tight right now.”
To keep costs in check, some jurisdictions require offenders to pay for some or all of the daily costs of monitoring. Such policies in that respect vary widely from county to county and state to state. An offender’s income level may determine whether the offender will be asked to contribute and, if so, how much, Buck said.
Corrections agencies have many priorities that compete with spending on electronic monitoring. But Susan Arthur, vice president of state and local government at EDS, said she sees growing interest in using offender management systems to help wardens run prisons. Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.