The Lighter Side of Electronic Monitoring

History shows the benefits of positive reinforcement for Ankleted-Americans.

Thirty five years ago, only one person in the United States was subject to electronic monitoring. His name was Spider-Man, he was battling evil on the pages of America’s newspapers; and for several weeks during the summer of 1977 the syndicated Spidey’s every move was tracked via an “electronic radar device” cuffed to his wrist by a villain known as the Kingpin.

“Even your awesome power cannot remove it!” the Kingpin exclaimed. “Nothing can—except my hidden laser key!”

While the Kingpin used electronic monitoring in the pursuit of evil, New Mexico state district court Judge Jack Love saw the Spider-Man strips and envisioned a more benevolent application of the Kingpin’s technology. In Love’s estimation, electronic monitoring could help alleviate overcrowded jails while simultaneously allowing individuals convicted of minor offenses a chance to serve their sentences in a manner that was “less degrading than being confined in prison.”

Love shared his vision with several electronics companies, including the aerospace and computer industry giant Honeywell, but none showed any
interest.

A Honeywell salesman, Michael Goss, embraced Judge Love’s vision, however. In 1982, he quit his job and started his own company, National Incarceration Monitoring and Control Services (NIMCOS), to develop a device.

The end result was a 4 oz. battery-powered, waterproof anklet about the size of a pack of cigarettes. It emitted a radio signal every minute or so, and these
signals were picked up on a receiver connected to a phone jack in the user’s home and then relayed to a central mainframe computer. The device had a range of approximately 150 feet. When a person wearing the anklet strayed further than that from the phone jack, the radio signal could no longer reach the receiver and the system would generate an alert message.

In April 1983, an individual on probation who was caught holding heroin agreed to serve as the device’s first user. He was allowed to leave his home each weekday to attend his job but showed little interest in discussing his experience with reporters—he even turned down requests to appear on the Today Show and That’s Incredible.

NIMCOS exhausted its funding before it was able to bring its system into wide usage, but another company, BI, Inc., eventually purchased it. BI quickly evolved into the offender tracking industry’s leading company. Today it supplies products and services to approximately 900 federal, state, and local agencies.

In 1999, when a publication called The Journal of Offender Monitoring conducted its first annual survey to determine the size of the industry, it estimated that there were 75,230 individuals under electronic supervision in the U.S. Ten years later, that number had more than doubled to 200,241—most of the growth came from the introduction of GPS-enabled devices that, unlike their radio-frequency predecessors, keep continuous track of an offender’s location.

Along with BI, Inc., approximately 20 other companies manufacture products for the offender tracking industry too. In Indiana, it costs $54.28 per day to incarcerate an adult inmate. In California, Riverside County made news last year when it announced it was going to start charging some inmates $142.42 per day for their jail stays—the amount it says it costs to keep them there.  

In contrast, electronically monitoring offenders costs around $5 to $25 a day. According to a recently published Deloitte case study, moving half of the nation’s low-level offenders to electronic monitoring would save $16.1 billion on an annual basis.

Meanwhile, some states and municipalities are turning to electronic monitoring as a source of revenue. In Mountlake Terrace, Washington, for example, the city pays a company $5.75 per offender per day to provide electronic monitoring services, but it charges offenders who choose home detention over a stay in the local jail $20 per day. With approximately 10 to 14 offenders choosing this option on any given day, the city generates approximately $50,000 to $60,000 a year outsourcing incarceration to the community.

But as an increasing number of cash-strapped states and cities look to electronic monitoring as a means of putting their budgets on lockdown, is there more they could be asking of it?

Nearly 20 years before the Kingpin inspired Judge Jack Love, a pair of identical twins named Robert and Ralph Kirkland Gable had begun to experiment with an electronic monitoring system in the course of their studies as graduate students at Harvard. Their system positioned electronic monitoring as a tool in the process of positive reinforcement rather than a means of deterrence, a way for individuals to document instances of good behavior. (The Gables’ original surname was Schwitzgebel. They legally changed it in 1982.)

“My brother’s advisor was Tim Leary—there was a lot of crazy, creative stuff going on with that,” says Robert Gable, who obtained a PhD in Education from Harvard in 1964 and is now a Professor of Psychology (Emeritus) at Claremont Graduate College. “I was a student of B.F. Skinner. He was mostly working with pigeons and was very boring as a lecturer, and I wasn’t interested in doing anything in the lab. But my brother came up with this idea—why don’t we try the stuff that Skinner’s doing with pigeons on juvenile delinquents?”

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I know a few probation officers, both for adult and juvenile offenders. They generally seem to like their home monitoring systems, but I can't imagine what they would think of Gables' ideas of positive reinforcement. That's vastly different from the current concept of just corralling menaces outside of prison and charging them for it.

  • ||

    "A person may conform to rules to avoid punishment, but once the threat of punishment is removed, the original behavior is likely to reoccur."

    Conversely, if the person is conforming to rules to obtain a reward, once the rewards are removed, is the original behavior likely to reoccur? If that's the case, which I think seems likely for the same reasons that the opposite is true, then the positive reinforcement method wouldn't be any more likely to be successful once the monitoring and reward system is removed. So unless you're talking about equipping people with this positive feedback system indefinitely, which is a chilling thought right out of dystopian fiction, how would this be any better or even any different than the monitoring system as it exists today?

  • JoshSN||

    Usually you are such a dumbass. Congratulations, PM.

    You can even take your criticism a step farther. People in the "delinquent" program will want to be in the program, for the perks, and so will people who are otherwise law abiding. This sets up a bad incentive. I've never been taken to work in a limo.

    However, the plain fact is that government only punishes, it rewards almost nothing except martial bravery in its defense, and even those medals aren't worth much on the open market. I'm not saying pride in great service is unwarranted, just that government's reward is simple recognition.

    But I don't see how it is dystopian to say that people without felony convictions get more Social Security than others, and people without felony convictions get "full" Medicare/Medicaid, while others don't get the $100,000 life-saving operation, just their $20 pills. And, in the most anti-libertarian notion of all, people who join their local community center and participate in politics and do all the other things that we want people to do, aren't rewarded with small payments.

    I'm not advocating for that, but if someone tried it, I'd pay attention. Heck, I might even move there.

  • Robert||

    The trouble with this is that I can't think of any kind of favorable behavior that I would want rewarded by law. I'm thinking about victimful criminals, and what sorts of affirmative acts I'd want to reward them for. For instance, what would you reward a thief for -- an act of charity?! Or movement away from an establishment they'd robbed?

  • sweeterjan||

    The device had a range of http://www.vendreshox.com/nike-shox-oz-c-6.html approximately 150 feet. When a person wearing the anklet strayed further than that from the phone jack, the radio signal could no longer reach the receiver and the system would

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  • joy||

    Their system positioned electronic monitoring as a tool in the process of positive reinforcement rather than a means of deterrence, a way for individuals to document instances of good behavior. http://www.petwinkel.com/pet-gucci-c-35.html (The Gables’ original surname was Schwitzgebel. They legally changed it in 1982.)

  • JoshSN||

    Spam

  • NL_||

    The revenue-raiser argument is really creepy. It's one thing to free governments of the budgetary burden of punishing people. It's another thing to give them a financial incentive to strip people of their liberty.

    Government already has a strong incentive to flex muscles and punish people; turning the budgetary drag into a revenue raiser is not going to discipline the state's misbehavior in this area.

  • joy||

    strips and envisioned a more benevolent application of the Kingpin’s technology. In Love’s estimation, electronic monitoring could help alleviate overcrowded jails while simultaneously allowing individuals convicted of minor offenses http://www.riemeninnl.com/riem-hermes-c-18.html a chance to serve their sentences in a manner that was “less degrading than being confined in prison.

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