Electric monitoring: The intelligent alternative to prison
Koenck, Timothy P.
The Intelligent Alternative to Prison
In its simplest form, electronic monitoring is the use of automatic, remote technology such as computers, global positioning, and other surveillance equipment to track the exact location and current activity of selected individuals, in real time.
The vast majority of people in the United States are probably a bit uncomfortable with the thought of someone watching over their every move, and probably rightly so. For the ever-expanding number of prison inmates in the U.S., however, the potential of the constant intrusiveness of an electronic monitoring program is a small sacrifice that allows inmates to be home to provide for their families who need them instead of wasting their lives in the decay that is prison. In addition, taxpayers benefit in having a smaller population of prisoners to pay for.
Electronic monitoring is preferable to the United States' current policy of mass incarceration. It costs less to implement and maintain. It actually puts money back into the government's pocket. And it strengthens social and family bonds by allowing a family to remain whole.
Unless you or a family member are currently incarcerated, what you have read so far may not mean much to you. It should. Regardless of your familiarity with the prison system in the United States of America, mass incarceration is costing you a lot of money.
In present-day practice, prisons exist to provide two basic services: to protect society, and to punish the criminal offender.
Society deserves to be sheltered from those individuals who would choose to do its members harm. Indeed, the founding fathers of our country codified their intent to "... establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity ..." when they crafted the Constitution of the United States of America, thereby founding this country and its governing authority. (U.S. Const. pmbl.)
Regardless of a person's beliefs about the goals and effectiveness of punishment, it is obvious that the desire to punish those who do harm is a fundamental part of human nature. Rightfully so, it would seem. It is not healthy that any person would expect that they can act exactly how they choose in each and every situation. Every society has rules, standards, laws and norms by which they expect their fellow members to abide. While there may exist avenues whereby these expectations may be acceptable challenged, no society allows its members to act in open contempt of these rules, standards, laws or norms. Nor should it. Every individual member of society must surely live his or her life with the expectation that open contempt and violation of established laws will result in a sure, just, and reasonable punishment.
A Few Facts
It must be noted, however, that there are some very disturbing facts emerging with regard to punishment, prisons, and incarceration in these United States of America:
There are an estimated 2.26 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the United States. (Robert Ferguson, Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment, 6 (Harvard University Press, 2014))
The United States contains 5% of the world's population -- and incarcerates 25% of the world's inmates. (Id. at 216)
In the last three decades of the "tough on crime" campaigns, the United States incarceration rate has increased 500 percent. (Id. at 16) (emphasis added)
The incarceration rate in the United States is 730 inmates for every 100,000 population, more than any other single nation on earth, including Russia, who imprisons at a rate of 532 per 100,000. (Marie Gottschalk, Figure 1.1 Incarceration Rates, Selected Countries and Groups, Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, (Princeton University Press, 2014)) (emphasis added)
The prison populations of India, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Netherlands, France, Italy, and Canada combined are less than that of the United States of America. (Id.) (emphasis added)
If consolidated into a single community, the estimated 2.26 million people incarcerated in the United States would represent this nation's fourth largest city, behind only New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. (Largest U.S. Cities by Population 1850-2013, The World Almanac: Book of Facts (2015))
A discussion of the underlying causes of these shocking, shameful facts is beyond the scope and intent of this paper but more than likely include a combination of the following:
A. A greater number of citizens are committing crimes.
B. Law enforcement authorities are implementing better criminal detection, investigative, and forensic methods.
C. Judges and court systems are imposing lengthier terms of imprisonment.
D. Legislatures and Congress are increasing the number of actions and behaviors they consider illegal.
Regardless of cause, it remains a fact that keeping people incarcerated (whether in prison or by even more punitive and draconian civil commitment) costs money. A lot of money:
"The annual cost of housing an inmate at a [U.S.] federal or military prison ... is about $78,000." (Janet Reitman, Inside Gitmo: America's Shame, Rolling Stone, January 14, 2016, at 48).
So what? Should it really matter whether the average annual cost of housing an inmate is $35,000, or $78,000, or $200,000? Historically, the annual cost of keeping a person incarcerated has obviously been of little or no concern to those charged with paying our nation's bills. But this is a time without parallel in our nation's history -- our great and mighty country is broke. At some point in April 2016, the government of the United States and its citizen taxpayers owed $13,903,107,629,266 to its public creditors. (James Grant, The United States of Insolvency, Time, Apr. 25, 2016, at 28). And "[s]ometime in 2017, the total U.S. national debt will hit $20 trillion ...". (Peter Suderman, The Cost of Carrying Debt, Reason, Apr. 2017, at 9).
What do these numbers mean? Or are the figures so large -- so staggering -- that they simply cease to have meaning? The simple truth is that the bill for even the $13.9 trillion national debt amounts to $42,998.12 for every man, woman, and child in the United States. (Grant, supra) (emphasis added). And every second of every day that debt grows larger, with no end in sight. It is painfully apparent that fiscal responsibility in this country is sorely lacking, and has been for a great many years. Taxpayers ought to be in revolt. But we certainly can't do without our prisons. We must protect society. We must punish criminals, no matter what the cost to our wallets and the American economic system. Right??
What if there were a way to protect society from criminals and lawbreakers without taking them away from their families, jobs, lives and responsibilities? If that were possible, (and it is,) it would mean that the sole remaining reason for incarceration is punishment.
Again, so what? People that break the law deserve to be punished.
That is no doubt true. But at what cost? How much is it worth to satisfy the lust for vengeance and retribution? $78,000 per year? $144,000? $267,000? When is enough enough?
A Real Life Example
Think back to the last time you bought an ice cream cone. How did you react when the clerk told you that the cost of your ice cream cone would be $1.50? Your desire for ice cream was strong, so you more than likely handed over $1.50. What would your reaction have been if the clerk had told you that the cost of that same ice cream cone would be $7.00? How about if it were $16.00? The amount of money you are willing to pay depends on how much money you have available to spend, the depth of your desire for ice cream, and what options to ice cream are readily available. However, regardless of the variables, at some point as the cost rises, the hard-earned money that you are willing to pay for that ice cream cone will become more valuable to you than satisfying your desire for ice cream.
The very same concept holds true with imprisonment and the desire to punish. It certainly makes sense to punish those that break the law. But when our government can't afford the cost of a single-dip ice cream cone, why do its citizens allow it to continually buy banana split sundaes? As a taxpayer, does the money you spend each year buying vengeance, punishment and retribution help you sleep better at night or put bread on your table? Or would you perhaps rather keep that money to spend on your own family's needs?
Superficial consideration may lead to the belief that keeping society safe from criminals and punishment of violators is simply an ever-rising cost that cannot be stemmed. Fortunately, that is not true. The technology now exists that can virtually guarantee the safety of the general public, can effectively and sanely punish criminals, and can provide both of these services at a fraction of the historical cost. Releasing inmates from prison through a comprehensive electronic monitoring program is a reasonable, sensible, safe approach whose time has come.
Electronic monitoring programs can be implemented by any of several methods (i.e., ankle bracelet, "smart" watch, microchip implantation, etc,). I do not have access to how these various programs operate and l am certainly no technophile. All I know is that the technology works. The government has for many years surreptitiously and often illegally monitored the habits, movements, and activities of law-abiding citizens. Does it not make sense that the same government might show equal zeal in monitoring released prison inmates instead of spending $78,000 per year keeping them locked up?
I am in no way proposing or advocating the wholesale, indiscriminate throwing open of the prison gates. Unfortunately, there is a need for prisons that will never be totally eliminated. There is a certain segment of the inmate population who cannot or will not obey the simplest rules even while incarcerated. For these inmates, incarceration will probably always be the only option, no matter what the cost.
However, the vast majority of inmates currently confined by the United States Bureau of Prisons could successfully be released from prison and allowed to return to their families, jobs, and societal responsibilities through participation in an electronic monitoring program. Once released, the government could know at any specific moment of its choosing, no matter what time of day or night, the activity being engaged in by an individual inmate, as well as the location of that inmate. The monitoring program could be set up to immediately notify supervisory and law enforcement authorities if an inmate was in a location forbidden to them, or if they were engaging in an activity considered off-limits.
There would, of course, be a cost associated with this program, just as there is with any government program. Unlike most other government programs, however, at least a portion of an electronic monitoring program's cost could be paid for by the persons benefitting most -- the now-released prison inmate -- in the form of daily, weekly, or monthly fees.
Economic Benefits of Electronic Monitoring
Releasing inmates from prison through participation in an electronic monitoring program would benefit taxpayers in three ways:
1. The United States Bureau of Prisons budget would be greatly reduced. Even if the average annual cost per inmate were to increase -- as it most certainly will -- reducing the number of inmates incarcerated by even a modest 30% from current levels would result in a huge savings to taxpayers. Released inmates would still require a minimum level of supervision; staff displaced by the Bureau of Prisons could no doubt find employment with the U.S. Probation Department. So savings from a reduction in the number of government employees would most likely be minimal. A majority of the savings would come from no longer being saddled with the rising medical costs of an aging inmate population who would now, after release into an electronic monitoring program, be responsible for obtaining and paying for their own medical care and, of course, their own daily needs such as food, shelter, clothing, and basic hygiene.
2. A large part of the cost of the electronic monitoring program would be paid for by the program participants. Oversight and care into the assessment and collection of the program's participation fee would have to be made. An unreasonably high fee that an inmate/program participant could not afford to pay would sabotage the program, effectively rendering the inmate, the taxpayer, and the whole of society even worse off than they are now.
3. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it is critical to note that "[t]he median wage for an American family is $35,228 per year." (Median Income By Race, Hispanic Crigin, and Sex l948~20l3, The World Almanac: Book of Facts (2015)), This fact is significant for two reasons:
A. It is appalling beyond words that our government deems it a moral and appropriate use of your money to spend more than twice what an American family earns in a year to keep one of its citizens in prison. Congress should be embarrassed and ashamed of itself for sanctioning such a tragic disparity.
B. An inmate released from prison and participating in an electronic monitoring program would be contributing to the American economy instead of being a drain on it. The state and federal income tax obligation on $35,228 of earned income will, of course, depend on a number of variables such as deductions and dependants, etc., but it seems reasonable to assume that the U.S. government, the Internal Revenue Service, and the American taxpayer will reap at least some benefit. It is simple common sense to accept that even a small income gained from the tax paid by a former inmate now on an electronic monitoring program is preferable to continuing to pay the ever-increasing cost of incarceration.
An electronic monitoring program could be effectively implemented in any number of ways. One method it might be especially well-fitted is as part of a system of parole. Since November 1, 1987, when the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 went into effect (see 28 Moore's Federal Practice, Sect. 670.01(2) (Matthew Bender 3d. ed.)), parole has not been available to those convicted of a federal crime. For whatever reasons Congress used as justification at that time, the fact is that except for a couple of token years' reduction given for successful completion of certain drug treatment programs, there is virtually no method by which a federal inmate might earn an early release from their imprisonment. Many prison systems on the state level encourage and facilitate education/psychological program participation using incentives such as sentence reductions. The United States Bureau of Prisons (and Congress, through their indifference) offer nothing, thereby reducing to zero an inmate's incentive to change his or her previous patterns of thought and behavior. With no change in behavioral and cognitive patterns, it is easy to understand why the national recidivism rate has climbed to 67.5 percent. (See Ferguson, supra, at 16).
Negative Aspect of Electronic Monitoring
Detractors and opponents of electronic monitoring cite possible pitfalls such as vindictive and over-zealous probation authorities, unrealistic fees for program participation, and associated hardware/software problems as reasons to dismiss the program's value and discourage its use. (See James Kilgore, The Spread of Electronic Monitoring: No Quick Fix for Mass Incarceration, Prison Legal News, April 2015, at 22). These are legitimate potential concerns that should not be overlooked or taken lightly. However, the point is, that's exactly what they are -- potential concerns. Prison is a reality -- every single moment of every single day. I, for one, would gladly and eagerly trade the certain, sure, and daily injustices of prison for the potential pitfalls of electronic monitoring.
It is often said that insanity is repeatedly engaging in the same behavior and expecting different results. As germane as this definition is for human beings, it is equally applicable to our government. The federal government's mantra of mass incarceration costs more than the questionable benefits it provides. Is it not long past time to implement a new approach? Releasing inmates from prison through an electronic monitoring program slashes costs while continuing to protect the public.
It is also often said that convicted criminals owe a debt to society. Electronic monitoring allows a convict to pay that debt. Confining a person to decades in prison where the most profound choice each day is how much time to spend on the rec yard, at a cost of $78,000 per inmate, is hardly justice -- for the inmate or for society. It certainly doesn't make economic sense. Criminals have a societal debt to pay. Give us a chance to pay it!
The United States government has long and consistently complained about, sometimes even imposed sanctions on, countries like China, North Korea, Russia, and others if these countries fail to live up to our government's arbitrary standard of human rights. It is the height of irony that, for a number of years, it has been possible for pet owners in the U.S. to have their lost or stolen pets returned to them through the utilization of an electronic microchip implanted just under an individual animal's skin. By refusing to adopt and implement similar technology in releasing prison inmates so they can pay the debt they rightfully owe, our government is sending the very clear and unmistakable message that it believes a lost family pet has more rights and a greater value than the life of its imprisoned United States citizens.
There is a better way, America. You deserve better. It is long past time to demand better.
Contact your congressional senators and representatives in Washington. Tell them that you are no longer willing to stand by and watch your hard-earned tax money get shovelled down the rat hole of an inefficient, wasteful, broken, unjust federal prison system. Tell them that you want prison inmates to be responsible, to have a job and pay taxes, to pay their debt to society. Tell them that releasing prison inmates through participation in an electronic monitoring program needs to begin -- today?
There is a better way, America...!
Timothy P. Koenck
May 2016 / revised March 2017
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