Want to reduce incarceration rates? Targeted surveillance can help

Most debates about government surveillance focus on privacy costs. We don’t often discuss the benefits of surveillance, but there are benefits — surveillance reduces crime without putting people in prison. New tools offer powerful, low-cost alternatives to mass incarceration as a way to enforce the law and keep society safe. We need more of them.

Economists generally believe that incentives affect human behavior. There are exceptions, but for the most part, people will do more of something when the expected benefit goes up, and do less of something when the expected cost goes up. This suggests that we can deter crime by increasing its expected cost.

For decades we’ve tried to do this by putting more convicted offenders in prison for longer and longer periods. If the sentence for selling drugs is twenty years instead of ten, then selling drugs should be less appealing. But that strategy has diminishing returns, particularly if would-be offenders heavily discount the future. It also imposes substantial costs on individuals and communities: families are separated, human capital is lost, and taxpayers pay richly for the maintenance of prisons and jails.

Ideally, we would like to reduce crime without imposing these costs. Recall from Econ or Stats 101 that the expected cost of crime is the probability of getting caught multiplied by the punishment. What if we were to make punishment more certain, instead of longer or harsher? This would increase the expected cost of committing a crime, as before, but would shift the cost to the near-term so that individuals pay more attention to it.

Could a focus on catching a larger share of offenders induce would-be criminals to obey the law? There is growing empirical evidence that the answer is yes. Three examples demonstrate the potential of targeted surveillance programs to deter criminal behavior in this way.

In one program, called 24/7 Sobriety, individuals arrested for or convicted of alcohol-involved offenses, for whom sobriety is a condition of release, must submit to breathalyzer tests twice per day or wear a continuous alcohol monitoring bracelet. (The high-tech bracelets are particularly efficient because they do not require coming into a testing center or hiring staff to conduct the tests.) If individuals test positive for alcohol use (or skip a test), they receive a short, immediate jail sentence of just one or two days.

Researchers at the RAND Corporation used variation in the timing of program implementation across South Dakota to evaluate its effects. They found big returns. The vast majority of the tests were negative, implying that the program deterred individuals from drinking more successfully than traditional enforcement does. As a result, it reduced DUI and domestic violence arrests. It also reduced death rates – particularly deaths due to conditions associated with excessive alcohol use.

Another approach requires convicts to wear devices that track their location (such as GPS ankle bracelets). Electronic monitoring (EM) technology is often used for individuals on parole or as an alternative to incarceration. Because individuals can be tracked from a remote location, it is cheaper and less invasive than alternatives that would require an officer to physically watch a person to make sure he’s obeying the conditions of his release (such as staying at home, or leaving only for work or school). GPS devices also make it easy to tell if a person was at the scene of a reported crime.

Rafael Di Tella and Ernesto Schargrodsky evaluated the effect of EM in Argentina, where it is used even for serious offenders. They found that being randomly assigned to a judge who prefers EM increases the likelihood of receiving EM instead of prison time. Offenders assigned to these judges had lower post-release recidivism rates as a result. Not only does EM reduce the use of incarceration, it actually reduces crime that would have sent individuals back to prison.

The third approach uses DNA databases, which help law enforcement identify repeat offenders with high probability. State law determines which convicts and arrestees must submit a DNA sample to the state database; their DNA profile (an identifying string of numbers) is then compared to DNA evidence from crime scenes. This allows authorities to match offenders to crimes quickly and accurately, in violent as well as property offenses (DNA evidence often helps solve burglaries, for instance).

My own research shows that collecting DNA profiles from convicted offenders in the U.S. deters those individuals from offending again. I compared offenders released just before and after new DNA profiling laws went into effect. Those released after were added to the database (with their knowledge) while those released before were not; otherwise, these two groups were nearly identical. It turns out that individuals added to the database reoffended at much lower rates, presumably because they knew their odds of getting caught were much higher. This change in profiled offenders’ behavior reduced overall violent and property crime rates, making society safer.

All of these programs work by identifying wrong-doing more quickly and accurately. While none of them would completely replace incarceration, they provide alternatives to prison for at least some offenders, and deter criminal activity that would have put more people behind bars. In both ways, they help reduce incarceration rates.

Catching a larger share of offenders requires keeping a closer eye on individuals’ behavior – that’s what surveillance means. Surveillance has privacy costs. But technological advances allow police to monitor behavior in ways that aren’t as invasive as they would have been in the past, when surveillance required physically watching someone or following him from place to place. And to the extent that these programs help us identify offenders with greater accuracy, reducing unnecessary arrests and wrongful convictions, they help safeguard the privacy and liberties of those who are innocent. Finally, if surveillance prevents crime better than prison does, it reduces harm to would-be victims.

All of this suggests that shifting our focus from incarceration to targeted surveillance would have large benefits for society, at lower cost than the status quo.

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in Real Clear Markets.