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TechTank

How digital technology can reduce prison incarceration rates

Darrell M. West

It’s an acknowledged fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate among developed nations. And just last week, there’s been a marked momentum for sentencing reform in Congress. On Thursday, March 26, former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich and a top Koch Industries executive joined the left-leaning Center for American Progress and the ACLU at a bipartisan criminal justice summit in Washington to work towards avoiding incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

Not only is sentencing reform uniquely positioned as common ground for both the right and the left, but also technology can be the critical key to unlocking these alternatives to long-term prison sentencing. In a digital world with ankle bracelets and GPS devices, there is no reason to believe that physical imprisonment is the only option for those convicted of nonviolent offenses. People can be subjected to home confinement with ankle bracelets. They can participate in work release programs that allow them to have jobs, visit family, and shop, subject to time or geographic restrictions.

Monitoring programs have the advantage of keeping convicts outside of prison and integrated in society while also keeping others safe. As an example, Omnilink is a firm that uses RF and GPS devices to provide “flexible sentencing” options to the courts. www.gpsmonitoring.com customizes its equipment for alcohol infractions, sex offenses, and fugitive recovery. www.housearrest.com claims that electronic monitoring reduces incarceration costs from $70-80/day to $4-9/day.

There furthermore are innovations in terms of probation and parole. According to the non-profit organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums, mobile devices enable those out on release to keep in regular touch with their probation officers. Many jurisdictions require daily check-ins and keeping overseers up-to-date on their work plans and job searches.  

Those on probation or out on parole must let officers know what they are doing and where they are doing it. Some probation officials undertake surprise “spot checks” through unannounced visits to make sure convicts are where they claim to be. Digital technology obviates the need for these intrusive physical measures since court officials can use far less obtrusive and time-consuming means to accomplish the same goals.

Halfway houses have become a big part of residential reentry. Released prisoners often spend time in a community home before being released fully. Courts generally place a number of conditions on what they can do and the times they can do it. In the pre-digital era, it was hard to make sure individuals fulfilled these requirements short of physical inspection. But now through video cameras, it is easier to make sure ex-cons are meeting their responsibilities and making progress toward full submersion in society.

Not all are convinced of these alternatives to incarceration. Critics rightfully recognize privacy concerns surrounding digital monitoring and surveillance. Some of those individuals subject to these tools claim the oversight devices are dehumanizing and unfair. Writer Maya Schenwar, for example, is a vocal critic of technology monitoring of those subject to home confinement. She believes these options are punitive and represent a contemporary version of the “scarlet letter.” Yet compared to incarceration, ankle bracelets and GPS devices seem far more tolerable. They keep offenders in society, are less punitive than prisons, and are much less expensive.

Solving more far-reaching problems of imprisonment is going to require policy changes such as sentencing reform, reduced incarceration, and expungement of prison records for nonviolent crimes. For example, Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have co-sponsored a bipartisan bill called the REDEEM Act which would seal juvenile records for nonviolent crimes, reduce sentences for minor offenses, and make it easier for nonviolent offenders to apply for jobs.

In some cases, online records actually can become a detriment to societal reentry. Even if someone has gone through the process of removing their imprisonment on nonviolent crimes from formal court records, newspaper articles, websites, or social media posts may make it impossible to keep this information from potential employers. Websites such as www.mugshots.com keep arrest records online and people have to apply or pay money to “unpublish” their online pictures.  

Other sites such as www.backgroundchecks.com scan the Internet for incriminating materials. For a small fee, employers, insurers, bankers, and ordinary people can purchase a service that checks court cases, prison records, bankruptcy proceedings, and social media sites to determine what is in that individual’s online profile. These firms aggregate the information and make it readily available to anyone who pays.

Internet platforms need to develop some mechanism by which nonviolent offenders can expunge not just their court records but their online profile. The European Union’s proposal for the “right to be forgotten” could help those who made minor mistakes restart their lives. It places a time limit on certain kinds of digital materials and therefore gives people control over how long their information remains public.

Unless we find alternatives to physical imprisonment, the social and economic costs of jails will continue to sky-rocket. Technology solutions can reduce costs, keep society safe, and ease the re-entry of nonviolent offenders.

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