It’s time to rethink the prison system

The criminal system has existed in its present form for a very long time. Sure, some things have changed — we don’t chop off the hands of thieves, nor do we send criminals to Australia — but for the most part the judicial system is the same it has been for at least a thousand years. First, a crime is committed; then, either the suspect (“perp” isn’t used anymore) is apprehended or a personhunt ensues. After this a trial of some form occurs. If sufficient evidence can be shown, the criminal is often put in jail.

Prisons are also much like they have been for centuries. While technology has improved alongside prisoner rights, the general idea is to lock them up for a length of time with conditions appropriate to the crime they have committed. A research project just announced in Alberta is looking to challenge this conception of punishment. Using GPS technology, criminals released on parole can now be tracked to within a few metres. The idea is that the parole officer, along with police, can monitor a criminal’s location and keep her away from restricted areas determined by the parole officer.

Recidivism (committing the crime again) is high among criminals. If a prisoner is released, there is roughly a 25 per cent chance that he will end up back in prison, although Correctional Services Canada notes that overall recidivism is difficult to quantify. The goal of tough prisons — that criminals will have such a bad time and won’t commit a crime again — is pointless if felons are hardened to a life of crime after a first jail term. Crime rates have been decreasing in Canada. Only four years ago saw the lowest amount of crime in 25 years. If this trend was due to prisons becoming tougher there would be motivation to increase harsh sentencing, but in both Canada and America the outcome is the opposite — harsh sentencing is correlated to an increase in crime. While punishment is one reason for prisons, reform is another. Society has no use for harsh sentencing if it doesn’t help, either by discouraging others to commit the crime or discouraging the criminals from re-committing. (Punishing one person to deter others is unjust, however.)

What can GPS technology do? Suppose a drug dealer is released. As part of his parole he isn’t allowed to visit an area where he used to sell drugs, or associate with other convicted dealers. In the old days judges would hand down this order knowing full well that there was little chance of it being obeyed, because the drug dealer knows there is little chance he will be caught. Suppose that his movement can be tracked. All of a sudden the moment he visits that street corner the police are notified and he goes back to jail. A similar possibility exists for restraining orders. Once the person gets within 200 metres of the house where the person he abused lives, the police show up.

A strong reason to embrace this system is it cuts out many of the exorbitant costs of imprisoning people. A call centre can track hundreds of thousands of criminals, all with GPS trackers that will alert authorities when the person goes somewhere she shouldn’t. Current technology also alerts police when the band that attaches the unit to the criminal is cut, making it unlikely that the criminal will be able to get away. Some can do more than just track an individual. Sensors can detect blood alcohol levels and certain other drugs in a person, limiting the chance of breaking the terms of one’s parole by getting drunk or high. The limit to what can be monitored is set only by the freedoms that those on parole should have. Monitoring location is permissible, but monitoring heart rate to ensure exercise is less justified.

Criminal psychologists have long argued that repeat offenders are unable to weigh long term consequences (like prison) against short term gains. Recidivism is also high because criminals don’t think they will get caught, which is often the case. The GPS idea fits within a larger correctional paradigm. A recent article by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic describes a new model of punishment being tried in Hawaii. It is called “swift and certain” justice and the idea is to institute immediate and consistent penalties. Judge Steven Alm tried it without the use of GPS technology. Each parolee for drug offenses was made to call the courthouse each weekday to see if he had to undergo a urine test. If a test was failed or if a probationer missed a test, he was sent back to prison. As Wood notes, the sentences were low — normally less than a week — but failed tests nevertheless decreased by 90 per cent. The parolees needed to know that punishment was certain if they broke the rules and once they discovered that they couldn’t get away with the crime they stopped committing it. Judge Alm’s work shows that the “swift and certain” justice paradigm can be applied without GPS technology. When tracking is included in this method the value of the model applies beyond drug offenders.

Such measures are no panacea. Crimes are still going to happen and people are still going to need to be locked up in prisons. Attempting to reform criminals only makes sense if there is a good chance they can be reformed. If psychological problems exist, public release isn’t the best solution. Yet, the majority of offenders pose little threat to public if they can be monitored. If the “swift and certain” model combined with GPS tracking is successful, the result will be a more effective system at a much lower cost to taxpayers.

The technology of GPS tracking is far less than the cost of even one year of prison for one inmate. The second benefit is that parolees will pay their way in society by being contributing members, rather than sitting in prison learning how to be better prisoners.

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