Thinking the Unthinkable: Punishment by Out-carceration

Venezuela’s debate on crime and punishment is as impoverished as our most miserable barrio. Sucked into the fiendish dynamics of polarization, it leaves out just one thing: serious, considered discussion of what to actually do about rampant crime.

Sooner or later, somebody is going to have to start thinking about this stuff seriously, and when they do, they’re going to realize that Venezuela can’t afford to build, manage and run the tens of thousands of new prison places we would need to manage the crime wave using traditional methods.

When they do, they might start taking ideas like this one seriously:

GPS tracking devices, along with other advances in both the ways we monitor criminals and the ways we punish them for their transgressions, suggest a revolutionary possibility: that we might turn the conventional prison system inside-out for a substantial number of inmates, doing away with the current, expensive array of guards and cells and fences, in favor of a regimen of close, constant surveillance on the outside and swift, certain punishment for any deviations from an established, legally unobjectionable routine. The potential upside is enormous. Not only might such a system save billions of dollars annually, it could theoretically produce far better outcomes, training convicts to become law-abiders rather than more-ruthless lawbreakers. The ultimate result could be lower crime rates, at a reduced cost, and with considerably less inhumanity in the bargain.

I think a responsible, realistic response to the violence in Venezuela is going to have to lean heavily on this kind of "out-carceration" strategy. It’s just a matter of arithmetic. Prisons are far too expensive to build and manage and far too many inmates re-offend. It will take a daring, forward-looking, tech-savvy and, above all, serious government to implement this kind of option. We’re so, so far from there. 

For now, though, it’s fascinating to think through the possibilities. None of which are theoretical, mind you: this stuff is being done right now, today, in the United States, through a company called BI Inc.:

The truly revolutionary devices are the new generation of GPS trackers, which monitor criminals’ real-time locations down to a few meters, enabling BI to control their movements almost as if they were marionettes. If you were a paroled drunk driver, for instance, your parole officer could mandate that you stay home every day from dusk until dawn, be at your workplace from nine to five, and go to and from work following a specific route—and BI would monitor your movements to ensure compliance. If your parole terms included not entering a bar or liquor shop, the device could be programmed to start an alert process if you lingered near such a location for more than 60 seconds. That alert could take the form of an immediate notice to the monitors—“He’s at Drinkie’s again”—or even a spoken warning emanating from the device itself, instructing you to leave the area or face the consequences. Another BI system, recently deployed with promising results, features an electrostatic pad that presses against the offender’s upper arm at all times, chemically “tasting” sweat for signs of alcohol. (In May, starlet Lindsay Lohan was ordered to wear a similar device, manufactured by a BI competitor, after violating her probation stemming from DUI charges.)

To see the BI systems at work is to realize that Jeremy Bentham was thinking small. The call center consists of just a few rows of desks, with a dozen or so men and women wearing headsets and speaking in Spanish and English to their “customers” (the law-enforcement agents, as distinguished from the tracked “clients”). Each sits in front of a computer monitor, and at the click of a mouse can summon up a screen detailing the movements of a client as far away as Guam, ensuring not only that he avoids “exclusion zones”—schoolyards or bars or former associates’ homes, depending on the circumstances—but also that he makes his way to designated “inclusion zones” at appointed times. […]

I asked Jamie Roberts, a call-center employee who had previously been a BI customer as a corrections officer in Terre Haute, Indiana, to show me a parolee on the move, and in seconds he pulled up the profile of a criminal in Newport News, Virginia. The young man’s parole officer had used a Microsoft Bing online map to build a large irregular polygon around his high school—an inclusion zone that would guarantee an alert if he failed to show up for class on time, every day. Roberts showed me one offender after another: names and maps, lives scheduled down to the minute. There was a gambler whose anklet was set to notify Roberts if the client approached the waterfront, because he might try his luck on the gaming boats; an addict who couldn’t return to the street corners where he used to score crack; and an alcohol abuser who had to squeeze himself into an inclusion zone around a church basement for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting from 9 to 10 p.m., three times a week.

A strict parole officer could plausibly sketch out a complete weekly routine for his parolee, with specific times when he would have to leave home and specific stations he would have to tag throughout the week. He might allow, or even require, the parolee to go to the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon, and go for a jog along an authorized route every morning. Roberts pulled up another Bing map for me, and set in motion a faster-than-real-time playback of one client’s day. As his dot carefully skirted the exclusion zones around a school and a park, staying away from kids because of the absolute certainty that BI would report him if he did not, his life on the outside looked fully set out in advance, as if he moved not on his own feet but on rails laid by his parole officer. For BI clients, technology has made detection of any deviation a near certainty—and with detection a swift response, one that often leads straight back to the Big House.

Read the whole thing. Well worth it.