Dylan Matthews recently published an article at Vox titled Prisons are terrible, and there’s finally a way to get rid of them. Matthews’ article starts out strong, beginning with an explanation of the horrific costs of prisons. He describes the appalling rates of physical and sexual assault, the data on systemic racism, and the costs to taxpayers for maintaining this violent system. He then notes the ostensible reasons for the prison system, such as deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation of prisoners. However, he notes “prisons aren’t the only way to accomplish those goals.” His alternative approach is using GPS tracking in order to enforce house arrest.
Matthews cites various empirical studies that suggest GPS tracking is very effective compared to other methods of crime control. Most of the studies compare GPS tracking and house arrest to parole, probation, community service, and other options besides imprisonment. However, one study examined tracking technology when used as a direct alternative to imprisonment:
The most intriguing evidence comes from Argentina, where Harvard’s Rafael Di Tella and Torcuato Di Tella University’s Ernesto Schargrodsky found that electronic monitoring cuts recidivism nearly in half relative to a prison sentence. That raises the possibility that electronic monitoring could be more than merely a supplement to prisons. It could replace many of them. The program evaluated used something a bit less technologically sophisticated than GPS tracking. Offenders wore an ankle bracelet which transmitted a signal to a receptor in their home. If the signal is interrupted, or the device appears to be manipulated, or the vital signs of the individual are not being transmitted from the bracelet, then the receptor calls it in.
Di Tella and Schargrodsky’s evidence is particularly compelling because the decision of whether to give Argentinian arrestees house arrest or prison was made randomly. In most countries, electronic monitoring is offered to defendants judged to be less dangerous, so you’d expect those sentenced to it to reoffend less than those sent to prison. “If you show someone released into monitoring has lower recidivism, all you show is that the judge was successful and identified the person who was less dangerous,” Di Tella notes.
But in Argentina, judges are randomly assigned to cases, and strict and lenient judges differ wildly in their inclination to use electronic monitoring. The result was that extremely high risk people were sometimes given electronic monitoring and extremely low risk people were sometimes thrown into jail — it was just random. The leniency of some judges meant that there were “people accused for the second time of murder [who] were still given electronic monitoring,” Di Tella says. Di Tella and Schargrodsky had stumbled upon a true, randomized experiment, and the result was being monitored instead of imprisoned caused people to reoffend less.
These results suggest that GPS tracking and house arrest could be more effective than imprisonment at preventing criminals from reoffending.
However, while Matthews’ argument at first appears to be a prison abolitionist argument, it is in fact a reform proposal. In order to make sure people remain under house arrest, Matthews proposes “a guaranteed, immediate prison stay for those who violate its terms.” He also argues that for the most dangerous offenders, such as murderers and rapists, house arrest is still insufficiently secure to hold them. Matthews’ proposal would, however, entail locking dramatically fewer people in prison. As Matthews points out, “In 2011, only 2 percent were admitted for murder, 0.7 percent for negligent manslaughter, and 5.4 percent for rape or sexual assault. … The vast majority of the people getting locked up aren’t killers or rapists.”
If Matthews’ proposal were ever implemented, it would in some ways be a dramatic improvement over the American prison system. The very structure of prison makes inmates vulnerable to rape, murder, and other forms of violence in a way that seems unlikely with house arrest and ankle bracelets.
However, there are also substantial risks to expanding the use of house arrest, ankle bracelets, and GPS tracking. The ultimate risk is expanding the scope of criminalization and turning society into an open air prison. These technologies risk turning our homes into sites of surveillance, control, and punishment while making the world a constantly monitored panopticon.
Another problem is that political incentives would make a less punitive system like the one Matthews proposes unstable. As I’ve discussed previously, politicians have plenty of incentives to support ever more punitive policies. After any crisis, heinous crime, or moral panic passing new punitive statutes is politically advantageous for politicians. Politicians further gain from high profile enforcement of the laws they pass and prosecutors benefit from successfully prosecuting people, so a symbiotic relationship between politicians and prosecutors emerges. Prison guards gain concentrated benefits from incarcerating more people, while the costs of imprisonment are dispersed to taxpayers as a whole, and only concentrated upon those who are systematically disenfranchised. Moreover, the general public is rationally ignorant about politics, and polls and surveys indicate that the public overestimates the amount of crime in society, producing a bias in favor of more punitive policies.
So even if GPS tracking is a good replacement for prisons, political incentives mean that punitive prison policies would be reintroduced after GPS tracking was adopted as a supposed replacement. Ultimately, change needs to happen at the level of the institutions and incentives themselves. Change needs to happen at what economists like James Buchanan call the constitutional level, where the rules of the game are made. In my view, the necessary constitutional change is the abolition of the state. It’s good that pieces questioning the necessity of prisons are being published in mainstream liberal outlets like Vox, but a more radical challenge to the political structure is necessary.