Stimulating Technological Innovation in Monitoring Parolees and Probationers

I have long agreed with Mark Kleiman that part of the solution to prison overcrowding is to use technology to monitor lower-risk offenders in the community. But as I start to work with some brilliant and dedicated Stanford law students on the reduction of California’s prison population, I move from the theoretical to the practical and realize something important: GPS monitors for offenders tend to be bulky and disgusting. Some models make it look like you have a dishwasher tied to your leg, and if the equipment has been used before it may have embedded skin and hair on the band that ties it to your body…yuck!

There is a school of thought in corrections that we should make punishment as degrading as possible, which I think is wrong-headed from both the moral and self-interested perspectives. But from the “punish all you can in as many ways as you can viewpoint”, a big, clunky GPS monitor is an effective Scarlet A for the offender and the disgusting pre-used strap will teach him to mind his manners in future. And since people with that viewpoint control the money rather than parolees and probationers having purchasing power, I worry that it will be hard to stimulate the innovation we need here.

Ideally, the monitor would be so small that no one would know that you had it on. Something that could be easily mistaken for a wristwatch would be ideal. And the band should be cheap enough to be replaced after each use, or, be machine washable. I know that a number of RBCers are expert in economics and technology, so I bleg such folk: How do we stimulate those innovations when the people who control the purse strings actually like the bulky and gross products currently in the market?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

38 thoughts on “Stimulating Technological Innovation in Monitoring Parolees and Probationers”

  1. You mean, the Apple IParole? Available in six attractive colors. Stores up to 2000 songs.

    Seriously, how hard would this be technologically? Just nailing an iPhone to your shin should basically work, assuming we can require the parolee to do the recharging. But let me guess: the devices that are actually used are in fact much more expensive, and are sold by a couple of entrenched vendors that have no incentive in going this direction? If so, that might be the real problem.

  2. I suppose you’ve already rejected the possibility that the general public being able to recognize on sight who among them is a criminal, released just to save money, is a good thing? Not from a punishment standpoint, but a “People know who they’re dealing with.” standpoint?

    1. I like where you are going with this. It may even be that the existing technology is less than optimal in this regard. A device worn on the leg is not readily apparent. It is not in the typical sight-line, may be hidden by loose clothing, and is practically invisible when seated (at a job interview for example). I suspect that redesigning the technology to be worn around the neck would not prove difficult. An additional improvement might be the inclusion of non-lethal compliance measures to ensure that released prisoners remain tractable. If tasers are acceptable for use on civilians, there can’t be anything wrong with using them on criminals! To make certain they do not attempt to flee, even more persuasive methods might be developed…

      1. Making the device so visible may cause it to become a fashion statement like low rider pants.

    2. We’re only talking non-violent minor offenders here, not Hannibal Lecter or even Bernie Madoff. We’re not imprisoning “dude who got in a bar fight” or “dude who got busted with a hooker” because we think they’re a danger to others for the next 90 days.

      Which actually brings up my issue – GPS doesn’t help dis-incentivize a lot of crimes on its own. You can prove whether or not I was near the house that got robbed last night, but unless you’re going to ban me from the “bad part of town”, you can’t really stop me from slinging dope just by knowing where I am, and you can’t keep me from calling 1-800-DIAL-A-HOOKER to my house instead of cruising the streets, and you can’t keep my drunk-driving ass out of everyplace that sells beer or liquor with GPS. As a solution, it’s incomplete.

      1. I don’t know much about the rules for GPS-monitored parolees, but I’d be surprised if they’re required to avoid whole parts of town.

        And drunk-driving is not necessarily an issue to be addressed using GPS. For instance, a breathalyzer interlock system can be installed in the car’s ignition – a technological tool, but not one that uses GPS. And GPS can be of some use, for example to enforce a curfew that keeps a subject at home during the evening hours when drink-driving is most common.

        1. Breathalyzer interlocks sound marvelous. The reality is that they are seriously flawed devices. Here in NM we have a serious problem with repeat DUI offenders. One way our Lege tried to address the problem is with mandatory interlocks for DUI offenders.

          Just to show that they were serious about it, the Governor ordered interlocks installed in State motorpool vehicles. I took a sabbatical a few years ago, working with a State agency. Several times I had to ride in one of the interlock equipped vehicles. The interlocks are unreliable: when we were returning from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, it decided that our driver showed traces of alcohol and locked the car down. I was with her all day in a conference, she had no alcohol all day. We had to wait 20 minutes and try again. The things in the State cars were programmed to randomly demand a test. People who drove them regularly said they frequently demand the test in traffic, or when going down the interstate at 75 mph.

          LEO say the interlocks help, but … they’re too easy to get around. Find someone (your kid) to blow into the tube for you. Bypassing the interlock is fairly easy. And they’re expensive, particularly for such a flawed system.

          The expense isn’t such an issue for offenders, of course. But the ease of evading the check is an issue for the rest of us. Inept programming that demands tests at dangerous times is also an issue.

          After that experience, my conclusion was that breath interlocks were a good idea that failed in implementation. What is needed is a transdermal device that can continuously monitor the driver’s blood EtOH levels reliably.

          1. @ Keith,

            Thanks. I’ll point this literature out to the Lege staffers I know, in case the issue ever comes up again.

          2. A related point, for what it is worth. An anti-DWI radio public service announcement that I recently heard here in Wisconsin about breath interlocks emphasizes not the utilitarian obstacle to driving, but the humiliation factor. An employee is portrayed a being mortified by having to blow in to the machine when pressed for a ride by his boss.

    3. I’m not surprised that Brett would just as rather bring back the stocks.

      The purpose of the anklet is to make supervision possible. If the purpose were to require all parolees to be identifiable, we’d mandate that they wear bright orange prison jumpsuits, or perhaps a scarlet “P” for “parolee”. Rejoicing that the gear they’re strapped to is uncomfortable, clunky, or unhygienic is perhaps par for the course, but is hardly becoming or appropriate – and it’s hardly going to help them reintegrate into society. The device should be as manageable as possible, and if we as a society decide to punish them rather than simply to monitor their compliance, we should do that deliberately and overtly, not slyly pile on the petty humiliations.

      Also note that while this post doesn’t mention it, according to what I’ve read parolees and the like are often charged simply outrageous fees for the use of the GPS device (with some hardship waivers perhaps available). Just one more way that our criminal justice system penalizes people for being poor (along with the low quality and tiny budgets of public defenders and the corruption of the bail system by the bail bonds industry, for example).

  3. “..GPS monitors for offenders tend to be bulky and disgusting. Some models make it look like you have a dishwasher tied to your leg, and if the equipment has been used before it may..”
    Keith Humphreys, I think I am about half way between you and Brett: the new Slimline® GeePeeEss should the starter. And if you go too close to the woman who has a restraining order against you, or it is found slipped off in your bedroom while you are in a bar down town, then you go to the bulky and disgusting – and can get back to the Slimline® if you behave for several months. It’s always good for bad behavior to have consequences, and even better if the consequences don’t cost the tax payer $50000 a year, like putting the parole violator in the slammer.

    1. I’d think that if you cut off your Slimline GPS or violate an order of protection (aka “violating the terms of parole”), you’d go back to prison, not go to a bigger GPS.

  4. GPS on a chip costs about $5. Building the carriage, testing, software to monitor things, that’s more, but in bulk the device shouldn’t be more than about $50.

    Marketing is the problem. Your market is not the end consumer – it is a bunch of reactionary bureaucrats muddling through, “serving” a class of under advantaged poor people. Brett’s endorsement of modern Scarlett Letters is typical. You also have to get the device seeded to thousands of local parole boards, train people on monitoring software, build a support model that handles device failure (how do you tell the difference between someone taking it off and it just breaking?), etc.

    Opposing the industrialized corrections system we have today, passing laws that encourage fewer people in jail (who would think that having fewer criminals would be unpopular in what is supposed to be the freest nation on the planet?) by providing incentives for prosecutors to _not_ jail people would probably be a start.

  5. Idea, take two:

    Require parolees to carry a cheap cell phone at all times. They are already Stasi-wet-dreams of remote surveillance devices that most middle-class folks already bug themselves with. ATT, etc. already has automated remote-monitoring systems that law enforcement works with routinely. Compliance is enforced by random text messages that need to be responded to within X minutes.

    Integrate it with the unemployment benefit, and create a just-in-time jobs program for day labor.

    1. “Compliance is enforced by random text messages that need to be responded to within X minutes.”

      So now my gang just has 20 crooks, and 1 guy who baby-sits their mandatory phones. Even if you require a voice response, that can be circumvented with a little effort.

      1. Yes, it can be circumvented. There is a scale of making this harder or easier to circumvent, which is no different than any other legal compliance issue (we can’t keep drugs out of prisons, for instance). When you catch people, you fall back to Mark’s “swift, mild” sanction idea. Add in the work program, and perhaps substance abuse help, and at least a decent number of folks have an incentive to want to comply, because it is a path back to normal life. There can be other programs for harder cases.

      2. I agree that texting is insufficient as validation – though it could might work at least with the average criminal if the text message said “you have thirty minutes to present yourself at this office”, as both the person and the phone would have to rush over, and if the parole supervisor were suspicious they could check whether the arrivals of the person and the phone were simultaneous. I don’t think voice adds anything to text (I can’t identify strangers’ voices after brief acquaintance; can you?). Still, you could make it an expensive phone, and use video-chat. The monthly fee for an expensive phone (sufficient to do GPS and video chat), together with say six to eight hours of work for a supervisor every month might be $2-300, which is steep but is not out of line with current GPS monitoring costs. A cheaper phone could be used to send a photograph, but I’m not sure how you’d prove it was made within the last ten minutes (I can imagine methods, but they require props).

        Or make it a midrange phone, and lock on a Bluetooth anklet. This is perhaps the best approach: the parolee has a phone (which they need to get a job), and one with GPS at that. Their parole supervisor can call them at any time, or the supervisor or just software can always know where their phone is and that it’s still mated to its Bluetooth anklet. Probably wouldn’t cost any more than the current system.

  6. Don´t the military already have GPS locators for soldiers in combat? These will be rugged, light and reliable. Also of course easily removable. The design problem for the parole anklet is entirely about the lock. You can´t make handcuffs or shackles cute.

    I think I´d advise working on the pyschology more than the technology here. Not automated text messages to phones, but actual conversations with parole officers at (initially) one-hour intervals, going dowb or up on the latters´ say-so.

    1. I like the conversation idea. It gets back to the notion of rehabilitation over senseless punishment. Of course, we would need people who can council and (dare I say it) provide therapy and advice nstead of being Kafka-style functionaries.

      Locks, it should be noted, aren’t necessarily required. Tamper-evident seals are not perfect, but they don’t have to be. Numbered plastic zip-ties with distinctive, hard to duplicate markings exist, and are pretty cheap.

  7. Please note that, while I’m not terribly sympathetic towards criminals, I’d have a lot less stuff BE criminal in the first place, and I regularly object to felony inflation.

    My position, and would have thought my earlier comment got it across, is this; If you think somebody ought to be in prison, but have to put them out on the streets to save money, then you ought to let the people they encounter know who they’re dealing with.

    If the offense was such that nobody they encounter needs to know about it, it was probably such that the legal system shouldn’t be dealing with them at all. What the heck does somebody do, that the police need to be able to track their position, but nobody around them ought to know about it?

    1. ” What the heck does somebody do, that the police need to be able to track their position, but nobody around them ought to know about it?”

      Well, guys who are under orders to stay away from their ex-girlfriends, ex-wives. No-one else is in particular danger from them. Maybe breaking and entering guys, for whom a record of where they were over time could deter.

  8. Even in such cases, you’d want to know, because there are all sorts of interactions where you care about somebody’s general character. Like who your kids associate with…

  9. Keith,

    To the extent that new, smaller, and cleaner devices are cheaper than the current models, wouldn’t fiscal considerations tend to trump the punitive spirit of correctional officers? I don’t know what is the relevant elasticity, but it would certainly surprise me if it was zero.

    By the way, I just wrote a piece on alcohol (in Spanish) that you and some RBCers might enjoy:

    Best regards.

  10. Here’s a thought.

    Build a two-part system. Strapped to your ankle (or wrist) is a tiny, *passive* device—a persistent RFID chip, or a tiny Bluetooth transponder. Somewhere else on your person is a fairly ordinary GPS-and-Bluetooth-enabled cell phone. The Bluetooth phone in your pocket can query the attached-to-your-body chip, confirm that it’s nearby, and phone home with your GPS location: “I’m here, and the offender’s bluetooth anklet is within 5 feet of me.” If you leave the phone at home, it calls and reports “I’m here, but the offender is not here”. If you cut off the RFID bracelet, you have to cut through a wire of some sort—which disables it, or sets a flag, or something, and the phone reports “I’m here, but the offender is not here” or “the offender’s bluetooth anklet reports a removal attempt”

    The anklet can be disposable, and as inconspicuous as a loop of string. The cell phone platform could be the base station for other technologies—on the rehab side, personal breathalyzers, communication with parole officers or social workers, etc. On the law-enforcement side, it could be used for some sort of eavesdropping warrant—“If Offender #1 is within 5 feet of parole-condition-taboo Offender #2, start recording”. A restraining-order protectee could be offered a loose anklet, one which prompts a 911 call if the offender’s GPS comes close enough to see it.

  11. Ooh, I’ve got one. I have very mixed feelings about actually proposing it, but how about chipping parolees for the duration? the Itty Bitty GPS wouldn’t even need a locking attachment at that point. The chip (they’re currently something like half a millimeter on a side) would be removed at the end of the parole period, and its presence would be verified during regular visits. So as long as your monitor stays within 6 feet of you, you’re fine.

  12. If the question is, “What would be a better system?” I like the cell phone/random texts that must be replied to, with the phone, plan–have mobile parole officers, and an exclusion for specified locations, to make it even more effective. (Exclusion for specified locations–so that if you are in court, or at your place of employment, you won’t be texted).

    But the original question is interesting–how to you get the technology out there, when the payers and the beneficiaries are different. If there’s no problem with having people pay for the monitors currently, is there some reason that having people pay more for a better monitor would be a problem?

    1. Pay-for-play justice is always problematic. Our criminal justice system already punishes too many people for being poor, in too many ways, and we shouldn’t add parole terms to that list.

      1. I’m with ya! Wikipedia has the answer: “The most expensive speeding ticket ever given is believed to be the one given to Jussi Salonoja in Helsinki, Finland, in 2003. Salonoja, the 27-year-old heir to a company in the meat-industry, was fined 170,000 euros for driving 80 km/h in a 40 km/h zone. The uncommonly large fine was due to Finnish speeding tickets being relative to the offender’s last known income. Salonoja’s speeding ticket was not the first ticket given in Finland reaching six figures.” So Lindsay Lohan should pay $73000 for her monitor, and a poor girl would pay $200. Or work it off picking up litter by the road. In both cases, enough that they notice.

        1. Surely it would be better to have a progressive system of taxation, and fund programs according to their needs from that progressive taxation, instead of funding the programs through fines that differ according to economic circumstance? After all, one parolee’s meager means might be supporting their ailing mother, while another’s is not, and trying to legislate all that at the point of charging for a monitoring anklet sounds awfully burdensome. And I don’t want the cops ignoring some beater swerving across the road because their department’s budget, and their salaries, depends on finding more Mercedes driving five miles over the speed limit; nor do I want people who can afford a Mercedes to drive a Camry because it’s good camouflage against the cops. To take your other example, if we decide that inmates should be picking up litter, this should because we have a reason to want them to do it, not as a way for them to pay off their anklet; otherwise the wealthy can buy their way out of litter patrol.

          I’m all in favor of redistributive policies when they mean progressive taxation, excellent social services, and a strong safety net – but it seems to me that the criminal justice system is not a good place for them, and that’s true whether they’re progressive as in the case of the Finnish ones you cite, or regressive as in the case of the American system.

          1. I don’t buy it. Progressive taxation means that innocent taxpayers are on the hook for these things. If we make Jussi Salonoja and Lindsey Lohan and Michael Milken pay big bux for their monitors, and poorer people less, it is at least the offenders paying. How to ensure that the cops ticket beaters? That’s a problem, but you try and solve it with good management, and by maybe having confiscated property proceeds go to a different level of government.

  13. The problem put to us is, given that the people making the decisions want degrading technology X rather than superior technology Y, how do we get them to buy Y?

    As a technical person, when I want my boss to buy something, I marshall facts and demonstrate that there’s a business case for whatever it is I’m suggesting. The boss reacts to his own selfish interests, plus or minus some prejudice or habit or fear of the unknown, and maybe follows my advice.

    The politicians who decide what to do with convicted criminals aren’t persuaded by facts, and don’t have an overt financial interest in the proper working of state government, so that approach is clearly not going to work. They’re primarily motivated by a desire to tell a story to voters about how they are anti-crime (as opposed, presumably, to the legions of pro-crime politicians). Facts get in the way of that story, more often than not, as with my state senator James Seymour, who stands for vigorous prosecution of law-breakers other than himself.

    So we either move the decision away from the politicians and toward someone who would decide the issue based on facts, or we get rid of the politicians who are getting in the way of good government. Or, I suppose, we form a business to promote the superior technology, and lobby-and-bribe our way to success. Each approach has good reasons to fail.

    If it were up to me I’d take the political route, making humane justice a campaign issue and slowly undermining the ability of politicians to use unrealistic fear of crime to their political advantage.

    1. Thanks Don for bringing up this critical point. I have thought of some possibilities. One is that you get an angel investor who is motivated by a chance to do good rather than make money and that person subsidizes the superior technology such that it is cheaper than the current stuff. Another alternative is to run a trial of low-visibility monitoring vs. high; problem there is that the benefits may be mainly in terms of the dignity and self-worth of offenders, which many people do not value. I don’t know if that would translate into lower recidivism, but if so that might be enough to convince even the hard line people to use the less obstrusive technology.

      1. I’m not sure even that lower recidivism would convince some hard-liners. That smacks of being “soft on crime”. (Seriously. During the last gubernatorial campaign in my state, one candidate proposed saving $40M from the corrections budget by setting up job-training programs, services to find housing for ex-cons, drug treatment and so forth, thereby reducing re-offense rates and thus the prison population. Optimistic numbers, but backed with study data. The other candidate responded with robo-calls saying that his opponent planned to put criminals back on the streets.)

        What might work — and this would require some careful survey work — is some measure that the punishers would consider degrading but the parolees wouldn’t. Since the two populations have different mores it might be plausible to find an excluded middle.

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