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Rethinking incarceration: Is home confinement a viable prison alternative?
Insights to action
Studies show that long sentences don’t always reduce crime or the chance of a repeat offense. Is home confinement the answer to overcrowded, costly prisons?
- Expand the scope of existing home confinement programs
- Benefits of home confinement
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Expand the scope of existing home confinement programs
When a first-time, non-violent drug offender enters a courtroom for sentencing, the administering judge confronts a familiar question—how much prison time should be given as punishment? There are three reasons a judge might consider an alternative way to serve the sentence:
- The judge knows that a long-term does not always deter crime or reduce the chance of repeat offenses.
- Prisons are already overcrowded—and costly.
- Incarcerated individuals often have a hard time reintegrating into society, professionally and personally. They miss out on employment and family life, among other things.
A person arrested for possession of narcotics faces a state's mandatory minimum sentence of one year with a maximum of fifteen years behind bars. The state would have to spend over $150,000 to imprison this future inmate. Instead, they could more cheaply incarcerate the inmate "virtually" using a global positioning system (GPS)-wearable device that would allow law enforcement to limit his movement to home, work, school, or even drug counseling.
Technology-enabled home confinement is already being used on a small-scale throughout the United States to realize significant cost-savings and reduce prison overcrowding. It is often used for house arrest, pre-trial confinement, or as part of conditional parole releases. Forty-one states allow for the use of GPS ankle bracelets to track convicted sex offenders, and some states also allow the program to include those convicted of DUI, gang activity, or domestic abuse.
Benefits of home confinement
A 2012 study of electronic monitoring in Washington, DC found cost-savings of nearly $600 per offender for local agencies, a reduction in recidivism by 24 percent, and a net benefit to society of $4,800 per person across the criminal justice system. Another study identifies even greater savings (nearly $17,000 per offender) by replacing traditional imprisonment with electronic monitoring devices. Estimates show the potential savings by state and local governments of roughly $500,000 per year by virtually incarcerating just 60 offenders.
Aside from fiscal savings, electronic tracking may actually be more effective than physical imprisonment in helping offenders become productive citizens. Home confinement reduced the failure rate of offenders by 31 percent in one state. New data analytic tools can be used to identify offenders who are the best candidates for virtual incarceration and those in the program who are in the most danger of violation.
It's not a perfect system. Home confinement doesn't always work, and it's pretty complex when it does. There could also be some fairly obvious privacy and ethical concerns. But many of these can be addressed through careful selection of offenders eligible for home confinement options and ensuring appropriate regulations of the tracking technologies. For example, data analytics tools can be used to identify the best candidates for this alternative to prison and monitoring activity can be restricted to a physical location and forbidden from other forms of collection, such as conversations or tracking internet activities. Improvements in technology and oversight from elected leaders will be needed to address these sorts of issues.
Ultimately, the potential gains of alternatives to physical incarceration for government, society, and individuals are too great to ignore. Our criminal justice systems often lack the ability to punish offenders without adding to the burden of our jails. Now there is a better way.
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