Electronic Monitoring Possible Alternative to Prison

April 2, 2009

Filed Under: Faculty, Research

The increasing growth in the U.S. prison population over the past three decades has been unprecedented in the country’s history, resulting in 2.4 million offenders in jails and prisons in 2007. The cost to taxpayers for adult and juvenile corrections in 2009 will reach approximately $50.3 billion, more than triple the 1986 cost of $15.6 billion. Consequently, lawmakers and policymakers are seeking alternative means of controlling offenders without jeopardizing public safety. One promising approach to reducing correctional costs is diverting offenders from prison through the use of some type of community supervision with the use of electronic monitoring (EM). Although EM has been around for more than 20 years, the latest technology uses GPS, allowing probation officers to constantly track offenders using satellites. The technology costs 20% less than prison, and the offender pays for some or all of his or her EM supervision. Associate Professor Bill Bales, Dean Tom Blomberg, and Research Center Director Karen Mann are currently evaluating the use of electronic monitoring. Their study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, will determine if EM is an effective control mechanism, how EM affects offenders and law enforcement officers, and whether it is a cost effective correctional strategy. During a recent interview, Bales discussed the current study.

What is electronic monitoring?
Electronic monitoring is a sophisticated surveillance tool that allows officers to track the exact location of offenders every second of the day. If offenders are not at specified locations such as their home, school, or work during pre-approved times or if they enter “exclusion zones,” officers are immediately notified. EM is used extensively for sex offenders so officers are notified if offenders are in areas where children congregate, such as schools and playgrounds.

What is the overall goal for using EM?
EM is intended to reduce the likelihood that offenders will commit a new crime, violate the conditions of their supervision, or flee from supervision. It can also be used as a crime detection tool because it can pinpoint the exact location of offenders and determine if they were at a crime scene. EM can also exonerate offenders on supervision by proving that they were not in the vicinity of a crime scene.

Who are the participants in your study?
We are studying two types of offenders: those who are currently supervised with EM and those who have gone from using EM to being on community supervision. The study focuses on medium- and high-risk offenders who were convicted of a felony offense and placed on a variety of different types of community supervision. Due to recent changes in Florida laws aimed at sex offenders, a large percentage of our cases are sex offenders. Using data supplied by the Florida Department of Corrections, we are comparing the outcomes of supervision for EM versus non-EM offenders and are interviewing offenders, probation officers, and Department of Corrections administrators to learn more about how EM affects them and to understand why EM may reduce re-offending, violations, and absconding. We are trying to understand if EM is effective because offenders know the likelihood of getting caught is very high or because offenders stay home more, work more, and are more likely to attend treatment programs.

What is the purpose of your study?
We want to inform policymakers, correctional officials, and the general public about whether EM is effective as a less costly alternative to prison without jeopardizing public safety. Additionally, the study will provide information that may assist Florida and other states in improving the use of EM.

What have you learned so far?
We have learned a great deal about how EM works and the perceptions of EM on the part of offenders, officers, and correctional administrators. We are still in the process of conducting interviews, compiling that data, and analyzing the administrative data from DOC, so the final results will not be available for several months.

Does it appear that EM is effective?
We do not yet know the answer to that question from the research currently underway, but stay tuned. However, we did an empirical study that was published in Criminology & Public Policy, that found EM to be very effective at reducing re-offending, supervision violations, and absconding among offenders place on Community Control – also known as “house arrest” (Padget, Bales, Blomberg, 2006).