The pros and cons of electronic monitoring

Malta is the latest country toying with this concept. Although studies in many countries have found that electronic monitoring is a promising tool for reducing recidivism and controlling corrections costs, questions remain about its effectiveness as an alternative to incarceration. In this sense, it is imperative that one has a broad view of the uses, advantages, and disadvantages of EM technologies, as well as possible directions for future research.

This equipment is getting used in a lot of different ways. The challenge for courts and policymakers is to pair these technologies and the use of this equipment with individual offenders’ risks and needs. The key question is what types of equipment and what set of restrictions is right for what types of offenders.

The Courts and the Chief Executive Officer of the Correctional Services Agency will have the lawful authority to impose and implement electronic monitoring. EM should be used at any stage in the process where it can be rationally applied. The traditional concern with EM, which remains valid today, is whether we are using technology just because we have it. So we have to be thoughtful about its application. Rather than using EM because of a broad-brush legislative mandate or because a particular judge would be more comfortable with additional monitoring, the decision should rest with community corrections professionals. Further EM should be integrated with a case management plan. There should be clear, time-limited objectives in place and a step-down strategy built in.

In the proposed law there are five specific instances where EM will not be allowed.

There has been little systematic research on the electronic monitoring of persons charged with or convicted of domestic violence (DV) related offenses, where the technology is used not only for surveillance/control but also for victim protection. We refer to the latter use of EM as bilateral, because a second party is enrolled into a program of surveillance.  In the context of DV offenses, bilateral EM (BEM) extends the mandate of unilateral EM by protecting specific individuals (“victims”), as opposed to being designed to address public safety interests in general, or to prevent absconding while out on bail. Courts attach or impose this measure with the expectation that BEM will strengthen protection orders. The victim’s participation and cooperation are necessary to the functioning of BEM programs for DV cases, introducing a variable absent from UEM. This could equally apply to gender-based violence.

Currently, global positioning system (GPS) technology is regularly used to monitor sex offenders in the community. This technology combines tracking, crime-mapping, and web-based data integration to provide information to the supervising officer about the location and movements of offenders.

The remaining two instances related to maintenance and access to children cases where there is the ineligibility to benefit from an Electronic Monitoring Order call for a proper evaluation and convincing reasons for retaining these prohibitions.

Furthermore, I would propose that also eligible for electronic monitoring, even in cases of priso sentence exceeding one year, would be those that are at low risk for committing other offenses, who did not previously serve time in prison as well as those who agree to conditions of home confinement and are able to pay for the costs associated with the device, although low income or indigent offenders should not be barred from electronic monitoring on cost alone.

The technical aspects of electronic monitoring have been constantly changing for the last few years. They have gone in two different directions. The vendors are getting smarter about battery life and powersaving methods, so the devices themselves are getting smaller. There is also a movement to make them harder to remove. To date, there are different types of Electronic Monitoring Instruments available on the market, ranging from Home Detention Monitoring, SCRAM Bracelet (SCRAM is an acronym for Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring device), to GPS Tracking.

Eventually, there will necessarily have to come into play the ethical challenges of the introduction of electronic monitoring. Ethical principles are those which guide and point towards good conduct, for persons, professionals, organizations and governments. There are, in fact, two distinct areas of ethical deliberation relevant to debate about EM – “the ethics of punishment, control, and care” and “the ethics of technological change”. The former has long been debated in moral philosophy, jurisprudence and penology (fields which have traditionally neglected questions about technology). The implementation of electronic monitoring (EM) in the context of offender supervision may formally be governed by legal, judicial and political protocols rather than overtly ethical ones, but ethical understandings (if not always human rights concerns) invariably underpin these issues.

It is widely recognised in many jurisdictions that short custodial sentences are of limited rehabilitative value, and alternatives to them are frequently considered desirable. A number of countries aspire to use it in this way, although not all have had equal success, Estonia, for example, despite its effective integration of EM within probation, has not managed to persuade its judges to use monitored sentences as a strategic means of reducing the use of short periods of custody.

England and Wales have been almost the same in that respect. Denmark, however, which, (emulating Sweden) introduced “home detention under intensive electronic monitoring and control” in 2005 quite specifically to reduce pressure on its prison population, has made a particular success of doing this. As have France and the Netherlands.

There is then the private sector and electronic monitoring relationship aspect. Commercial organisations are inevitably involved in the provision of EM, if only as providers of technology (hardware and software) and technical support. Sometimes they provide monitoring staff and run monitoring centres. Ankle bracelets are either bought or rented from commercial suppliers. None of this means that commercial organisations cannot be integrated into ethically defensible arrangements for administering EM, but where service delivery is itself in the hands of a commercial provider this creates yet another organisational interface within the multiagency structures that are usually required to provide efficient and effective, integrated services to offenders.

Government decisions to use commercial organisations to deliver EM are as likely to be taken on ideological grounds as on practical grounds. This might reflect an official belief that private companies are more adept at managing technological projects than the public sector which, with the exception of the police, do not usually comprise technologically sophisticated organisations. In the second decade of the twenty-first century this is less true, and even the Netherlands, which had public sector delivery of EM from the outset, albeit with a private organisation running the monitoring centre, has recently taken the monitoring centre into public ownership.

In many respects, the technology has moved faster than the policy and practice. At the end of the day there might be lurking a real danger of over-reliance on the technology before all the kinks are worked out and policies are fully thought out about how to respond to all of this stuff. But a pilot project is worth launching.

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