Electronic Monitoring and Other Forms of “e-Carceration”

November 14, 2018

By Jill K. Sanders, Esq.

In a move to end mass incarceration, “e-carceration” is on the rise. E-carceration refers to different types of technology to gather information to constrain the liberty of those subject to such devices. This includes all types of monitoring used in the criminal justice system, such as automated license plate readers, facial recognition software, “stingray” cell site simulators, and many other types of sophisticated technology. In this blog, we’ll discuss common forms of e-carceration used every day as alternatives to incarceration. Below, read more about location monitoring, alcohol monitoring, and risk assessment algorithms.


Alcohol Monitoring Devices

For those with criminal cases related to Driving While Intoxicated, a court or probation officer may require the defendant to use various devices to ensure he or she does not drive a vehicle after consuming alcohol. This includes an ignition interlock device, an alcohol-monitoring bracelet, and electronic breathalyzers. These devices are types of e-carceration.

An ignition interlock device (“IID”) must be installed in the vehicle of anyone convicted of certain drunk-driving offenses. An IID prevents the vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking alcohol. A person must blow into the IID, which will take a reading of his or her blood alcohol concentration (“BAC”). The device will also require “rolling re-tests” which ensure that a driver does not consume alcohol while driving.

Other persons may use devices which monitor their alcohol intake even when they are not driving. An ankle bracelet called a SCRAM device monitors the amount of alcohol in a person’s system by detecting it on their skin. This device continuously monitors the person’s alcohol consumption. Another device, called a Soberlink, is a wireless breathalyzer device. Periodically, a person will be required to blow into the Soberlink and their results are uploaded to a web-based server.

One issue with these types of e-carceration devices is that they can be expensive. There is usually an initial deposit required and an installation fee, and thereafter there are monthly maintenance charges. Other issues include false positives based on people using mouthwash and hand sanitizer. Further, breathalyzer devices can be problematic for people with certain medical conditions, such as asthma and diabetes.


Location Monitoring Devices

Another form of e-carceration is location monitoring. Some defendants can be placed on “house arrest” or be limited to where they can travel. This requires the wearing of a GPS ankle bracelet to monitor their location. This is a good alternative to incarceration for those who have family members for whom they provide care. Defendants may be able to continue working and earning money if they remain at liberty rather than go to jail or prison.

There are some criticisms of location monitoring devices, however. For one, the ankle bracelets can be bulky and uncomfortable. They are a visual cue that the person wearing the monitor has been through the criminal justice system. Additionally, the cost of can be steep. Some services cost as much as $300 per month, not including the deposit or the installation and removal fees. The bracelets also have to be charged frequently – some monitoring devices can only keep a charge that lasts for 12 hours. To charge the device, the wearer must stand next to an outlet for several hours, as the ankle bracelet can’t be removed while it is charging.


Risk Assessment Algorithms

The final e-carceration method addressed in this blog are risk assessment algorithms. This is a type of calculator based on a set of rules. The user inputs certain data about a defendant and the algorithm generates an assessment of that person’s risk of future criminal behavior. Algorithms are used at various stages of the criminal justice system, from arrest through incarceration.

At the outset of a criminal matter, a member of New York’s Criminal Justice Agency will interview a person and input certain information into the algorithm. The algorithm will make a recommendation whether or not a defendant should be released or if bail should be set. For example, a person who lives with at least one other person and who has a job will more likely be recommended for release or minimal bail.

New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (“DOCCS”) and local probation departments use a risk assessment called COMPAS (Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions). COMPAS uses 137 questions answered by the defendant, along with information about his or her criminal record. The resulting report makes a prediction about future risk of criminal activity and substance abuse. It also makes a recommendation about how much supervision that person should have while living in the community. However, in a recent Dartmouth University study, researchers found that COMPAS is no better at predicting an individual’s risk of recidivism than random volunteers recruited from the internet. Another group of researchers also found that COMPAS was biased against African Americans, although that group’s findings have been debated.