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?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.