A Prison Without Bars: How GPS Tracking Could Fix A Broken System

gps-tracking-prisonAt some point in every American’s lifetime we’ve heard the assertion that “our prison system is broken”; now, at long last, a fix may exist — in the form of GPS tracking.

A quick crunch of the numbers makes a valid argument that the system is misguided at best, and grotesquely unjust at worst. Some of the statistical highlights: 1 in every 108 adults were in prison or jail in 2012, 1 in 28 American children has a parent behind bars, recidivism rates are over 40% (as of 2011), the number of prisoners in the US has more than quadrupled since 1980, and so on. And, all of this is bleeding us dry financially: in 2010, the US spent $80 billion on incarceration. Not to mention the horrifying human cost of racial disparity and sexual assault within the criminal justice system.

Naturally, with figures this staggering, think tanks and pundits are compelled to construct solutions. News outlet Vox has done just that; looking at various prison systems around the world, they’ve concluded that GPS tracking-enforced house arrest could replace prison sentences for minor, nonviolent offenses.

“Today, we have something better than guards: satellites,” Dylan Matthews writes.

GPS technology has been used in a number of countries for a number of penal and precautionary purposes. One study out of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. looked at the cost-benefit analysis of electronic monitoring among offenders under some form of community supervision and found that not only does the rearrest rate reduce by nearly 24%, but the savings potential would average around $5000 per person.

Two European studies, one in Switzerland and one in Sweden, both found promising results when offering electronic monitoring as an alternative to traditional community service or incarceration-based punishment.

The most glaring example of positive results from an electronic monitoring-based program came from Argentina, however, where recidivism was cut by half relative to prison sentence.

What made Argentina’s study so unique was how arrestees were assigned the electronic monitoring option. Instead of it being assigned based on severity of crime or number of offenses, it was chosen based on the leniency of the judge. Minor crimes would be given the same weight as major ones.

“People accused for the second time of murder were still given electronic monitoring,” said Harvard’s Rafael Di Tella, one of the study’s co-authors.

While Argentina’s program saw great success, its failure is a failure that has become inevitable when dealing with traditional prison alternatives: one prisoner assigned electronic monitoring escaped and murdered a family of four, ostensibly ending the program.

This result is horrible, to be sure, but it illustrates how GPS can be used successfully, Vox writes. By limiting GPS-enforced house arrest to a certain class of criminal (essentially anything non-violent), you reduce cost and crowding in our prisons while also curtailing recidivism.

The main component to making a GPS-based prison system a reality is in enforcement. When you remove the bars from the equation, you force inmates/”outmates” to deal with a mitigated freedom that could be exploited. But, if a “swift and certain sanction” exists for those who violate the terms of the GPS system, it could enforce the entire program.

“If escapes aren’t answered quickly, either with an immediate return to home confinement with increased supervision or with a return to prison, the system will fail,” Matthews writes. “If people are punished when they have not in fact violated the rules, the system will fail. And if the costs of violating the rules are vague and uncertain — even if they’re also quite severe — the system will fail.”

Vox‘s proposal appears perfectly valid on paper, reinforced by a number of pilot programs that have shown success. Even the blind spots Matthews points out, notably that the GPS system wouldn’t work for domestic abuse cases (“you wouldn’t want people convicted of domestic violence to be sentenced to home confinement with their victims”) has an answer: GPS.

As GPS tracking technology gets more accurate and advanced, a future where prison is reserved for only the most hardened criminals becomes attainable; a fix to a problem that has plagued modern, civilized society for centuries.

(Image by Steve Mays, licensed under Creative Commons)

About the author  ⁄ Erik Helin

Erik is BrickHouse Security's copy chief. Hailing from the Midwest (Wisconsin), Erik moved to NYC in 2010, securing a job at BrickHouse shortly thereafter. Outside of work he writes about music, does freelance advertising work, and wastes his life on the internet. Aside from no-brainers like cheese and beer, Erik enjoys music, travel, TV, his cat, and Brooklyn.