Probation and parole officers set many rules for their clients, but they have very limited capacity to tell when those rules are violated. It would probably be better to have fewer rules and do a better job of enforcing them, to make community corrections a serious alternative to incarceration and thereby make it easy to shrink the currently bloated prisoner population.
Some of the rules involve times and places. For example, a probationer may be subject to a curfew; that’s especially common for juvenile probation. Or he may be required to stay away from the streetcorner where he used to deal drugs or from the apartment of the girlfriend he used to abuse.
Other rules don’t directly involve times and places, but could nonetheless be enforced much more easily if the probationer’s whereabouts were easy to determine. A probationer who reports having a job might be expected to be at his workplace during business hours. A probationer required to attend drug treatment or anger-management class ought to be at the treatment location when the treatment is scheduled to take place. And of course it would be harder to get away with committing fresh crimes if one’s location were continuously known.
The criminal justice system makes very limited use of position-monitoring devices, usually incorporated into tamper-evident anklets, chiefly as a way of allowing high-status people to avoid the indignity of jail. In most jurisdictions, the probationer has to pay for the device, and the bill runs nearly $1000 per month.
But cell-phone companies are now selling devices and services that turn a cell phone into a tracking device, and marketing them to parents who want to be able to track their kids. Under competitive pressure, prices have fallen to quite reasonable levels: $100 for the device and tens of dollars per month in service fees. It would be fairly trivial to adapt the tamper-evident anklet to this use.
What’s most appealing is the pitch from Verizon:
Verizon offers, for yet another $10 monthly, another equation-changing feature called Child Zone, in which a text message notifies you every time your child strays beyond geographical boundaries that you’ve set up. It’s like a more humane version of the electric doggie fence.
Tracking with exception reporting: just what a probation officer needs.
If I were running a probation (or parole, or bail) agency, I’d be on the phone to Verizon right now.