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July 2, 2014

An (overly?) optimistic account of how GPS technology could "solve" mass incarceration

This recent article from Vox, headlined "Prisons are terrible, and there’s finally a way to get rid of them," praises and promotes efforts to use GPS tracking to reduce US reliance on incarceration. The article strikes me as a bit too optimistic, but it does assembled some research that may justify such optimism.  Here is a snippet from the start of the article that highlights its themes:

So why do prisons exist? In theory, because we need them. They keep bad guys off the street. They give people a reason to not commit crimes. They provide a place where violent or otherwise threatening people can be rehabilitated.

But prisons aren't the only way to accomplish those goals. Technological advancements are, some observers say, making it possible to replace the current system of large-scale imprisonment, in large part, with alternatives that are not as expensive, inhumane, or socially destructive, and which at the same time do a better job of controlling crime. The most promising of these alternatives fits on an ankle.

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.

July 2, 2014 at 07:24 AM | Permalink


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It would be a good alternative once drug offenders have done a few years in prison.

It never would work even for 1 day, if the offender was fired up on drugs though.

That is a major flaw in our court system. Order someone who is an addict to be responsible and do something simple like, showing up to a drug class. Not going to happen. Have to first get the offender off drugs, keep them off a while. Break the physical and emotional cycle, then they can step up to the plate.


Posted by: Midwest Guy | Jul 2, 2014 8:08:53 AM

Drug offenses, property offenses, etc. could all work well, but I suspect violent offenses (certainly felony violent offenses) would be unlikely candidates.

On the other hand, GPS monitoring isn't free. In addition, those at home would need support for getting food, etc. unless they're allowed to leave for work (which wouldn't be a terrible idea, but would make monitoring more difficult). Given this, it may be another way for the wealthy to get differential treatment rather than for improving the system overall. Although, I'd agree that an ideal world would shift much of the prison population to something like this (perhaps with shock incarceration to at least give them a taste before they're released).

Posted by: Erik M | Jul 2, 2014 9:02:28 AM

There are some dead women in Orange County, California, who would disagree if they weren't dead at the hands of two offenders who were under GPS supervision.

Posted by: Wayne-O | Jul 2, 2014 9:59:54 AM

My question is what happens when you have a case like David Renz in Syracuse, NY, who escaped his GPS monitoring, raped a woman and killed her in front of the woman's child?

Posted by: Chris | Jul 2, 2014 11:25:03 AM

The biggest present-day problem with the suggestion is it overestimates the accuracy of GPS data and discounts the consequences of false positives. The tech has to improve before this conversation really becomes viable, see: http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-ff-gps-overload-20140216-story.html#axzz2tVfof9JD&page=1

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jul 2, 2014 5:53:30 PM


That is the 800 lb gorilla in the room that the System doen't seem to want to address. Even if you get a 0.5-1% false positive rate for alerts (for any given day) that is still a large amount of human resources that is needed for follow-up. The dirty truth is that these false positives are "ignored" or the "offender" re-imprisoned and assumed to be guilty without any additional investigation or hearing. A lot of potential respect is thrown out the window and $ given to politicians.

Posted by: albeed | Jul 2, 2014 6:05:03 PM

There is an increasing amount of money in GPS monitoring, so be careful of industry backed studies and hype.

Policy makers need to unravel what type of follow-up there is when studies show that recidivism is reduced. Real-time alerts are likely necessary, but it is surprisingly costly to staff GPS monitoring centers at an adequate level 27/7 and have someone investigate all alerts.

The alternative is to get a list of violations in the morning, but obviously this is less likely to result in deterrence.

In addition to real violations, some models have defects, batteries die, and places where you don't get cell phone reception will send an alert because the GPS likely does not go through either.

In researching my book Punishment for Sale, I came across a contract that a non-disparagement clause, meaning that the government agency could not say anything bad publicly about the firms technology or service. So, many problems are hidden.

Posted by: Paul | Jul 2, 2014 7:50:39 PM

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