GPS and community corrections

If cell phones allow parents to track the whereabouts of their children, they can also allow community corrections officials to track the whereabouts of probationers, parolees, and people on pretrial release.

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

2 thoughts on “GPS and community corrections”

  1. "If I were running a probation (or parole, or bail) agency, I'd be on the phone to Verizon right now."
    I suspect that those contacts have already been made, but they have more to do with tracking every cell phone, and also land lines. Look at disclosure and leaked documents on the current ATT suits.
    The records may not be being used as dope-selling prevention, as you seem to want, but that is a matter of time- the panopticon is here. It is just a matter of the masters learning to use the tools. and deciding which transgressions are more interesting to punish than others.

  2. This is off the main topic of the post (sorry) but does anyone else find the idea of using even a "more humane" version of an "electric doggie fence" on your kids a bit disturbing and unpleasent?

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