Electronic Monitoring Of Criminals This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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   For many years Americans have been clamoring for their government to "get tough on crime." Politicians and judges have responded with the popular response of putting more criminals in jail for longer periods of time. This solution may, or may not, depending on whom you ask, help solve the problem of crime by taking criminals off the street, but it creates different problems. The government, and therefore the American people, is faced with the huge bill of paying to jail these criminals. Perhaps most importantly, it has created an epidemic of prison overpopulation all over the country.

Overpopulation of prisons is being caused by mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have been passed by the federal government and many states and tougher sentencing by many judges. In the period 1981-1991 the number of prisoners in state and federal prisons increased 150%, from 329,821 to 823,414. Since then that number has continued to increase, reaching over one million. These numbers translate into an influx of approximately 45,000 new prisoners every year. If this statistic continues to stay true (which we believe it will), then it will further exacerbate the problem of prison overpopulation. As prisons are swamped with new prisoners, they have been forced to squeeze up to three inmates in a cell intended for one. New prison construction, which is increasing at high rates all over the country, cannot keep up with new prisoners. As a result, massive overcrowding occurs, a situation that is dangerous both for prisoners and those who work in prisons.

A side effect of prison overpopulation has been massive amounts of money being dedicated by governments to their penal systems. The cost of keeping a prisoner in jail for a year varies from $12,000 up to $35,000 and even more for some maximum-security prisons. The cost of building a new prison also varies, from $15 to $60 million and higher. Virtually every state is building new prisons; more and more are built every year. The states spend approximately $2 billion a year on prison construction alone. As the amount spent on constructing and running jails continues to rise by leaps and bounds, solutions must be found to reduce costs without reducing prisons' ability to adequately jail prisoners.

Governments, especially states, which bear most of the cost of prisons, will not be able to afford the ever-increasing share of their revenues that go to their justice systems. They will be left with three options: slash spending in other areas, which may cause serious disruptions in essential government services; raise taxes, which is always an ugly option to a politician facing re-election; or cut funding to their penal systems, which also may be very politically unpopular. However, we believe that if this problem is confronted now, before it becomes extremely serious, the nation will be able to avoid having to face these ugly necessities.

One method of reducing prison population that has been used on a small scale for a few years in some states involves continuous-signal anklets or bracelets or random phone calls to keep track of prisoners. The former alerts authorities when the criminal leaves his home so that they can then check to see if his absence is authorized per his approved schedule. However, in no state is this program in use with more than a few thousand participants.

Our solution takes this concept, electronic monitoring of criminals, and expands it to make it more effective and widespread. The Global Positioning System (GPS) was developed by the U.S. Defense Department for use by the military in all-weather navigation. More recently, it has been used by civilians in boats or cars or even out hiking to locate their position. GPS is a system of orbiting satellites that transmit a navigational message. Receivers, which are becoming smaller and lighter, take that message and translate it into the latitude and longitude of the receiver's position. Usually this is where it ends; the user of the receiver uses the information to see where they are. But the technological opportunities do not end there. If expanded they can be used in an innovative way to monitor criminals outside of a prison.

After a receiver compiles the GPS information, it could then use that information. It could send it to another satellite from which the information could be sent almost anywhere in the world. At a receiving station the longitudinal and latitudinal information can be received; the second receiver therefore knows the location of the first. With an uncomplicated computer system already in use in some cars this information could be translated into a location on a map so that authorities can locate a criminal using the standards we use in our everyday navigation (streets, cities, etc ...).

If the prisoner is the first receiver, and the second receiver is an operation run by the penal system, then there is a clear way in which a prisoner's location can be found. The prisoner would be required to wear a receiver at all times. His receiver would constantly be receiving and sending information, and the criminal would not even be aware of it. A system would have to be worked out between the criminal and a probation officer as to where and when the criminal is allowed to be. Most probably he would only be allowed to go to work, shop, and be at home. He could be monitored either by random checks or by a computer program that alerts officials when a criminal is not following his prescribed schedule.

For the criminals being monitored this system will be an inconvenience, but it shouldn't be a major impediment to their lives. Receivers are small and light and are continuing to decrease in size. It could be worn around a belt or attached as a bracelet or anklet. Living one's life according to rules that you have little input in may seem incompatible with a person's freedom to choose how to live their life. However, when weighed against the option of spending their time in jail, we doubt most criminals would complain.

This method is clearly preferable to what is currently done with minimum-security prisoners. As opposed to keeping a person in prison and paying for their room and board, the government would only have to pay a small amount (with the amount of volume the states would be buying probably only a few thousand dollars per person per year) for the receiver on the criminal, usage of the GPS system, and the monitoring of the signals. Not only does this save money for the government, but it also is better for the criminal. Instead of wasting away in a prison he is able to be a productive member of society, able to live his own life within the limits prescribed by the state during the time he is monitored.

Perhaps one of the best arguments for implementation of this system is its economic impact on the government. Currently it costs from a low of $12,000 to upwards of $35,000 to keep a criminal in prison for a year. The government would only have to spend a few thousand dollars a year per person (we estimate) to use the electronic monitoring system we are proposing, a small fraction of the cost of keeping a person in prison for a year.

There are two groups of prisoners who would be good candidates for this type of monitoring. The first is minimum-security prisoners, criminals who committed petty crimes and are considered to have a low risk of recidivism. There still might be the risk of their returning to crime, but the authorities believe it is minimal enough that they can be released into society if they are monitored. They could be put on the electronic monitoring system either as an alternative to prison time or as a way of easing them back into society, without removing all restraints on them, after they have served some time in prison.

The other group of likely candidates are those awaiting trial. If they are not considered a threat to commit another crime but are considered to have some risk of running away before their trial date, then the electronic monitoring system would be a perfect way to keep tabs on them without taking up valuable jail space. For instance, if a man is to stand trial in New York City, the judge could order him to wear a receiver and not allow him to leave the city. The computer could be programmed to alert the authorities, it finds that he has left the city. Then GPS would allow him to be located and caught easily.

We believe this solution to be preferable to the current penal system, but we are aware that there is certain to be opposition. First and foremost would be the question of civil liberties. The ability of the government to monitor a person's movement probably would be decried by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. America was founded on the basis of personal liberty, and many might see this method of surveillance as a violation of those liberties. The fear of "Big Brother" watching over our shoulders is one that many Americans dread. However, we believe that when weighed against the control exercised by the government on a person in prison, our solution will be seen by most as preferable.

Another potential problem is that prisoners who are not ready to rejoin the world might be put on it. Although psychologists and prison officials would be used to determine who is appropriate, there are bound to be mistakes. Even one mistake could cause a public outcry against the whole system. In order to help minimize this, probation officers should be used to help keep track on the progress of those who are on the system. But still, governments and the public must be prepared for the rare occasions when criminals on the electronic monitoring system will abuse it and commit a crime.

As Americans continue to be concerned about crime and our government continues to address that concern by punishing more criminals more harshly, new methods or incarceration for criminals must be found. Available space is not keeping up with the large net increases of prisoners and will continue to fall behind unless presented with massive increases in funding. Since this is not likely to happen, there must be ways found to be "tough on crime" without further overpopulating already overcrowded prisons. Our method uses already existing technology in an innovative way to make it possible for the government to keep tabs on criminals without having responsibility to house and feed and clothe. By using the Global Positioning System to monitor the movements of prisoners wearing receivers, everyone benefits. Prisoners are able to live the life of the average citizen with certain restrictions placed on their freedom of movement by the government; still, they are much more free than they were in prison. The government benefits from drastically reduced costs, more space for violent offenders, and more productive, taxpaying, members of society. Most importantly, the American people benefit from a criminal justice system that meets their needs better by fighting crime in a much more effective manner. u


This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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