Electronic Monitoring Research Paper

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Electronic monitoring (hereafter EM) was first introduced in the United States in 1983 and has continued to be used for almost 30 years since. In the meantime, EM has spread across the globe and is either in habitual use or has been on trial in many countries. The reasons for the implementation of EM are diverse. That said, claims of prison overcrowding and the cost of building new prisons are overwhelmingly relied on to support its introduction. Intimately connected with these arguments are expectations that see in EM an affordable instrument that is cheaper than imprisonment. From a treatment perspective, EM is regarded as a more humane approach to deal with offenders. Its main objective is to have offenders refrain from committing offenses and, in the long run, to decrease recidivism.

EM can fulfill the objectives of detention, restriction, and/or surveillance concerning the monitored offender. Hence, EM programs are diverse and may be implemented at different stages of the criminal justice system: pretrial, at sentencing, in prison, and postprison. Correspondingly, its application depends on the sophisticated technology required to address both low-risk and high-risk offenders. While the first generation of EM technology based on radio frequency (hereafter RF) transmissions only locates the offender’s presence or absence at a single location (usually the place of residence), the next generation of Global Positioning System (hereafter GPS) technology enables the continuous tracking of an offender’s movements and broadens the target group of EM to high-risk offenders. In the USA, GPS equipment seems to have now replaced to certain extent conventional RF equipment. Although the efficacy of EM has been discussed in numerous studies, a lack of evidence-based research is still apparent (see Nellis et al. 2013). The absence of reliable knowledge concerning its impact on recidivism is also caused by the diverse offender groups monitored and the variety of applications combined with burgeoning technologies. The theoretical foundation of EM also displays deficiencies. Various approaches see the electronic bracelet as a symbol of the rising society of control; as a means within a threefold model of “punishment-punitive,” “rehabilitative-humanistic,” and “managerialsurveillant” discourses; or as part of a global “corrections-commercial” complex. Moreover, not enough empirically based studies exist to place EM within a single theory.


The origins of EM date back to the 1960s. In 1964, Ralph Schwitzgebel (nowadays Gable) developed the first functional system at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Burrell and Gable 2008). EM was piloted on juvenile offenders within prescribed geographical areas that were equipped with repeater stations. Each individual wore a 1 kg “radio telemetry device” which activated a modified missile tracking unit up to 400 m away. This repeater station transmitted the positioning signal to a base station that in turn determined the individual’s location on a screen. Schwitzgebel’s twin brother, Robert, improved the RF system by enabling it to send tactile signals in a two-way coded communication. However, neither the original nor the refined prototype was able to establish a foothold at this time, due mostly to economic and practical reasons (too expensive, too heavy, and too advanced) (Burrell and Gable 2008).

It was not until 1983 that the idea of tracking offenders was realized by the district court judge Jack Love in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A newspaper cartoon about Spiderman, in which the villain covertly attached a radar device onto Spiderman to track his movements, inspired Love to convince a company to create a monitoring bracelet (Burrell and Gable 2008). In April 1983, Love sentenced the first of three offenders to electronic home detention as a condition of probation. Two of the three offenders successfully completed their curfew but recidivated afterwards. In December 1983, another individual on probation was sentenced to a weekend of home detention in Monroe Country, Florida. In November 1984, a pilot scheme was carried out in Palm Beach, Florida. This evaluation lasted 5 years and included 415 cases from late 1984 to the end of October 1989. The researchers observed that 97 % of the monitored persons succeeded in completing electronic monitoring and almost 80 % passed their probation period (Lily et al. 1992). During the 1980s, EM rapidly spread throughout the USA; the number of offenders monitored increased from 826 in 1987 to approximately 12,000 in 1990 (Schmidt 1998). Nowadays, EM is conducted in all 50 states of the USA, with an estimated 100,000–120,000 persons monitored in 2006. However, comprehensive data on the EM caseload has not been available since the last relatively complete study in 1990.

The US model of EM aroused interest in several countries, and its use for various applications began to spread around the world. The first pilot projects after the USA were initiated by Canada (1987), Australia (1989), and England and Wales (first trial 1989). In South America, Argentina implemented EM in the late 1990s. New Zealand piloted EM in Auckland between 1995 and 1997 and adopted the measure nationwide in 1999. In Asia, Singapore (early 1990s), Israel (2005), and Taiwan (2006) now run EM programs with completely different applications and target groups. South Africa was the first African country to set up a trial in 1996. In many Western European countries, EM was introduced at the beginning of the twenty-first century (Pinto and Nellis 2011). Whereas the instrument was already established in England and Wales, Sweden, and the Netherlands, experiments have occurred at a national or regional level in Belgium (1998), France (2000), Germany (Hesse 2000), Italy (first pilot 2001), Portugal (2002), Switzerland (pilots in six cantons since 1999), and Spain (Catalonia 2000). Meanwhile, other Western and Eastern European countries have since introduced EM programs: Austria (2010, permanent), Denmark (2005), Estonia (2007), Czech Republic (2009–2010), Finland (2011, permanent), Germany (pilot study in Baden-Wurttemberg 2010, permanent federal state 2011), Ireland (2009), Luxembourg (2006), Norway (2008), Poland (2009), and Scotland (2006) (Table 1).

Electronic Monitoring, Table 1Electronic Monitoring, Table 1 Total number of participants electronically monitored in comparison with the population size

The main reason for the rise of EM in the last decades has been prison overcrowding and the associated desire to reduce prison populations and avoid the construction of new prisons. The emergence of EM also occurred alongside the development of community-based sanctions to enhance their efficacy and increase public safety. Another important stimulus has been a push to reduce correctional system costs due to public finance crises and related budget restrictions. Despite its development as a cost-effective means, the introduction of EM is also related to the search for a humane alternative to incarceration, thereby supporting rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders into society. Though the motivations behind EM remain diverse, several additional objectives have been pursued since its appearance. Nonetheless, the variety of EM applications is based on three central rationales: detention, restriction, and surveillance. Detention is achieved by house arrest schemes. The monitored offender has to stay at home during established curfew hours. Home detention programs were one of the first types of EM and continue to be the most prevalent. Restriction is achieved by preventing the offender from entering proscribed areas or from approaching prohibited persons (e.g., [potential] victims, co-offenders). Surveillance is achieved by continuously tracking the offender, without actually restricting their movements. The emphasis of EM lies within the framework of the enforcement of community-based sentences or other preventative measures. The function of EM is restricted to a technological means which ensures that the monitored offender complies with the imposed conditions. Therefore, EM can be widely implemented at all stages of the criminal justice and correctional system.

Key Issues

During the last decades, diverse EM technologies have been created; the new developments generally surpass their predecessors in functionality (more reliable technology) and portability (smaller and lighter devices). The equipment usually consists of a tamperproof and water-resistant device which is fastened around the ankle or sometimes the wrist of the wearer. In addition, specific technological systems require different additional items. Tracking applications for offenders can be divided into active and passive systems operated with RF or GPS technology. Whereas the active system is characterized by continuously signaling, the passive system is based on programmed contact. The nowadays rarely used passive RF systems contact the person monitored by a landline telephone to ensure their presence at a designated place (usually residence). Different means may verify the individual’s identity like the inserting of a bracelet into a verification box, the submission of a password, or voice or biometric verification (fingerprint, retinal scan). The technology is limited to mere verification at random or specified times; it is not able to detect the individual’s location or possible violations of conditions in the period between calls (Renzema and Mayo-Wilson 2005). In contrast, active RF systems have been the most commonly used technology since the introduction of EM. In essence, a transmitter worn by the individual continuously emits a signal to a receiver unit in the wearer’s place of residence. The receiver unit is connected to the offender’s conventional telephone which relays the signal to a computer at the monitoring station. The computer alerts the authorities to signal interruptions in the individual’s schedule or to the possible tampering of the EM bracelet (Black and Smith 2003). Modern variations not only monitor the presence or absence of an offender at a single location (mostly place of residence) but also record an individual’s position at a specified place via drive-bys (e.g., if the monitored person is at a specific location at a scheduled time, such as place of employment). Remote alcohol monitoring can be added to the EM programs of drunk drivers to measure alcohol consumption with a portable or stationary single use or continuous testing device. Passive RF systems are solely restricted to detention purposes, and active RF systems are also primarily used for this role.

In contrast, GPS EM enables authorities to pursue restriction and surveillance objectives. The application requires at least three different satellites, a network of ground stations, and a device worn by the offender (bigger than the RF bracelet, and the wearer must charge the battery). Active satellite technology enables the real-time monitoring of the wearer 24 h a day. In contrast, the more cost-effective passive GPS version of EM usually downloads location and movement data once a day and only allows for a retrospective verification. Therefore, active systems are favored to enhance the supervision of curfew hours, place restrictions, and contact to “forbidden” persons or (potential) victims. In comparison to RF technology, active satellite tracking signifies a major advancement in offender monitoring practices because continuous surveillance enables the enhancement of community-based measures and the supervision of further offender groups. Since the introduction of GPS monitoring in Florida, the number of RF placements has declined considerably (Bales et al. 2010). This suggests that GPS tracking might replace RF technology completely, highlighting the use of restriction and surveillance for all types of offenders.

As a technological innovation, EM is a versatile and feasible instrument which can be implemented across the entire criminal justice system (Black and Smith 2003). The variety of EM programs means that it can be used at the pretrial level, at the sentencing stage, within the prison regime, and during the postprison phase. In pretrial criminal proceedings, EM can be used either as an additional condition for release on bail or in lieu of traditional bail payments for poor individuals who would otherwise remain in custody. The intention is to reduce the flight risk as well as the risk of committing new offenses. Further, EM is supposed to ensure that the defendant follows the imposed conditions. In a so-called front-door scheme (the door to prison), incarceration should be avoided, and the criminogenic environment of custodial settings should be prevented. In this way, EM serves as an intermediate sanction that is less harsh than prison but more severe than probation (Black and Smith 2003). These EM programs are usually of the home detention variety, with specified restrictions on the liberty of the offender. At the sentencing stage, the measure can be imposed as a primary sentencing option, as a court order to a suspended prison sentence, or as a condition to an imposed community sanction. EM may even be a viable alternative to imprisonment; after a court has sentenced an individual to imprisonment, he or she may apply, and be assessed as suitable, for an EM house arrest program. An “indoor scheme” has been introduced to the prison regime in some countries. Here, EM is used in open prisons (for inmate tracking) and outside during prison leave and work release. The “back-door scheme” (the door out of prison) represents the most common use of EM and can be divided into early release and post-release programs. For instance, EM can be used as a condition for early release (e.g., parole) to help ease the transition from prison back into the community. Post-release programs are used especially for high-risk offenders, in order to monitor their movements and to deter them from committing severe crimes. Beyond the scope of the traditional justice system, EM can be found in a variety of other diverse areas. One well-known example is in court restraining orders to prevent a potential offender from approaching a potential victim. In cases of domestic violence, EM can function as a tool of victim protection: if a prohibited zone is entered, the authorities can contact the person monitored and the potential victim can be informed by a technical device at their home. A rarer application is the monitoring of foreign nationals who are awaiting deportation (Pinto and Nellis 2011). In the criminal justice system, EM is well established as a stand-alone measure or as a condition in numerous multimodal programs.

Various types of offenders (e.g., drug users, juveniles) are regarded as suitable target groups for EM, though the legal and technological application tends to depend on the risk level of the convicted (Renzema and Mayo-Wilson 2005). Pilot projects are often characterized by a cautious tendency concerning the selection of offenders; consequently, low-risk groups are mostly preferred for initial trials of EM (e.g., drunk drivers, unlicensed or suspended drivers, petty criminals, first-time offenders) (Gable and Gable 2005). Of course, it should be kept in mind that the technological limits of the first RF monitoring equipment also gave reason for its restrained implementation. Moreover, the original EM participants showed mostly favorable socioeconomic attributes such as a fixed residence, gainful employment, close family bonds, and relatively stable financial affairs (Gable and Gable 2005). At the end of the 1990s, several programs in the USA began to address moderate offenders (e.g., where the risk of recidivism existed) (Schmidt 1998). Since the advent of GPS surveillance, high-risk groups (e.g., sexual offenders, persistent and prolific offenders) have also been included. Whereas detention is pursued for low-risk populations, restriction and surveillance dominate the tracking of high-risk populations (Black and Smith 2003). Hence, the intervention level of a program varies according to the offender’s risk assessment. While EM for low-risk offenders is frequently a sole measure or is combined with other forms of low-contact monitoring, EM for moderate and high-risk offenders is regularly embedded in a multimodal program to enhance human contact, supervision, drug treatment, or other services (Renzema and MayoWilson 2005). Thus, the degree of interference is dependent on the offender. The higher the risk assessment, the more invasive EM will be, including the length of daily detention and the imposition of monitoring (continuous tracking or the implementation of restricted/prohibited areas). Indeed, several states in the USA have now enacted lifetime GPS monitoring for sexual offenders (e.g., Jessica Lunsford Act Florida 2005).

In home detention schemes, the monitored person remains at home according to an individually arranged and computer-programmed time schedule (Mayer and Haverkamp 2003). The place of residence may be left for the time spent at work or in treatment programs and even for leisure time. Provisions for RF monitoring are typically a suitable fixed residence, a functioning (landline) telephone, and an occupation such as work, study, or treatment. The monitored person and his or her fellow occupants usually consent to the measure. In several countries, the monitored person must contribute to the costs involved based on their individual income. Due to differences in legal frameworks, intended objectives, and methods of application, enforcement of EM is heterogeneous and may be performed by probation or correctional services and/or private security companies. Programs involving probation or correctional services are mainly of a reintegrating and rehabilitative nature and often refer to early release schemes. Assistance is in the form of practical aid with daily routines, through to treatment in order to support long-term behavioral changes. EM programs can also be divided into stricter or more lenient models. Whereas the stricter model includes unannounced home visits, alcohol/drug controls, compulsory treatment, and/or behavioral programs, the more lenient model allows the moderate consumption of alcohol, free time on weekends, and/or time for socially acceptable activities.


In the twenty-first century, controversies on the normative and ethical issues that surround EM have played a minor role concerning the use of RF technology, especially when compared to the 1980s and 1990s (Albrecht 2005). The principal fear then was the infringement of the constitutional rights of the monitored person, especially the right to equality under the law and privacy (Lily and Ball 1987; but see also recently Nellis et al. 2013). Technical limits (monitoring restricted to a single location), the design of the programs (informed consent of the offender and fellow occupants), and efforts to avoid discrimination (provision of a place of residence, waiver of costs in the case of low-income earners) widely refuted these objections. It should also be remembered that EM often provides an alternative to prison and its punitive nature is distinctly less than that of incarceration. In different studies, the vast majority of interviewed offenders have confirmed this assumption (Martinovic 2010).

Hence, the debate on EM has shifted to an economic perspective, especially concerning the question of its cost-effectiveness when compared to imprisonment and community-based measures. However, the calculation of cost savings is a complicated matter, and numerous factors have to be taken into account. In comparison to prison, the monitored individual maintains his or her employment and fixed residence, pays taxes, and contributes to the costs for EM; yet such savings are not easy to determine (Black and Smith 2003). The simplest way to measure the economic efficiency of EM is to compare the daily costs for a monitored offender to the daily costs for an imprisoned offender which, according to many evaluative studies, generally supports the application of EM. Nevertheless, a comparison between different countries is difficult, as the daily costs are composed of different factors: e.g., some countries only calculate the costs of equipment and installation, other countries include the cost of social work, and yet other countries refer to savings in prison use (Pinto and Nellis 2011). In addition, this method of calculation has been criticized for its limited approach and because it disregards many of the real costs of EM. Consequently, unintended side effects of EM must also be taken into account, such as the net widening effect, which may actually increase financial expenditure. According to the concept of net widening, the use of EM may lead to the over-penalization of low-risk offenders who would otherwise be sentenced to a community-based order (offender net widening or front-end net widening) (Gable and Gable 2005; Nellis et al. 2013). Furthermore, technical violations of the monitored person can lead to a revocation of EM and to imprisonment (back-end net widening). In turn, this may lead to an increase in financial, staff, and technical resources for the correctional system (systemic net widening). That said, it is difficult to provide evidence concerning the emergence of net widening effects due to shortcomings in evaluative research and controversies among the current findings (Albrecht 2005).

As opposed to the use of RF technology, GPS surveillance arouses various concerns with regard to human rights and/or the replacement of social supervision. Human rights might be impinged by the intrusiveness of GPS EM due to the length of surveillance and the ability to monitor all aspects of a person’s life. The observed growth of GPS monitoring for low- and moderate-risk offenders in Florida constitutes an added intervention which could entail net widening compared to the use of less intrusive RF technology. The blanket use of GPS technology for all types of offenders would violate the principle of proportionality, namely, the punishment must not exceed the seriousness of the offense and sentencing procedures must consider the extent of the offender’s culpability.

The social impact of EM is another issue, especially with regard to its rehabilitative and reintegrative potential as a stand-alone measure or as an element in a multifaceted program. Results of evaluative studies show that permanent supervision can have a deterrent effect during the monitoring phase. The physical bracelet reminds the offender of his or her situation. This continuous confrontation may enhance compliance in a trust-, incentive-, and threat-based way (trust, no manipulation of the device; incentive, stay in familiar environment; threat, desistance) (Nellis 2006). Political hopes concerning longlasting changes in offender attitudes have, however, not been fulfilled. Academic doubts often refer to the ability, or inability, of EM as a standalone measure to affect behavioral change in the long term. This is due to its diverse application to a wide range of offenders (Renzema and MayoWilson 2005). However, rehabilitation-oriented experts favor the potential of EM when it is integrated in a multimodal program. According to evaluative findings, this type of EM might help offenders to successfully complete other rehabilitation programs (Bales et al. 2010). The continuous physical confrontation seems to offer a chance to affect the intrinsic motivation of the monitored person, whereby the person’s biography as well as their past and (potential) future criminal behavior is reflected on (Huckelsby 2008). Therefore, a monitored offender may also benefit from participation in treatment interventions to support pro-social behavior (Gable and Gable 2005).

The question of rehabilitation is strongly connected with evaluative research on EM. Although EM is now a well-established instrument, the lack of evidence-based research is regrettable (Renzema and Mayo-Wilson 2005). The reason for this lack of evidence has to do with the methodological limitations of the vast majority of outcome evaluations that generate contradictory results on the effectiveness of EM. Attempts to measure the effect of EM on recidivism suffer from an absence of comparative control groups and the use of non-interpretable studies with randomly assigned or historical comparison groups. That said, during the last decade, some methodologically sound evaluations of EM’s effectiveness have been carried out. Though they yielded dissimilar findings, this was likely due to differences in EM’s application, the target group, and their cultural background. Whereas a Swedish early release study found that midrange offenders seem to benefit most from EM (Marklund and Holmberg 2009), no significant impact on recidivism could be observed in an English study on curfew orders (Renzema and Mayo-Wilson 2005).

Deficiencies also surround the theoretical foundation of EM. In the 1990s, Deleuze proclaimed that EM heralded a process of transition from disciplinary societies to societies of control (Deleuze 1992). This transformation advances the use of technology (e.g., EM), as control architectures unfold and alter penal practice. Contemporary penology identifies three interconnected discourses here: “punitiverepressive,” “managerial-surveillant,” and “humanistic-rehabilitative” (Nellis 2011). The “punitive-repressive” discourse emphasizes the populist call for more severe punishment and correspondingly the imposition of more prison sentences. The “managerial-surveillant” discourse highlights modern improvements in technology and the use of actuarial techniques that favor efficiency and constructive management (e.g., commodification) in the most cost-effective manner (Cotter and de Lint 2009). The “humanist-rehabilitative” discourse panders to the offender’s responsibility. EM represents all three discourses, whereby the punitive-repressive discourse refers to the offender’s perception of EM compared to incarceration. While the majority of interviewed offenders answered in various studies that RF technology is more lenient than prison, the punitiveness of GPS still needs to be measured due to its intrusiveness, duration, and surveillance intensity. Satellite monitoring also addresses the managerial-surveillant discourse to ensure the management of a deviant population. One crucial element here is the discussion on the economics of imprisonment, which sees EM as being representative of the “correctionscommercial” complex (Lily and Deflem 1996). However, the majority of academic literature in this area has little or no recourse to theoretical foundations or empirical research (Cotter and de Lint 2009).

Future Directions

In contrast to RF EM, the advent of GPS EM has been characterized by anxiety and apprehension on three separate grounds. The first ground has to do with disturbing technological improvements that can be made to GPS EM. On the one hand, the progressive miniaturization of the devices means that monitored persons are now better able to conceal their confinement. However, on the other hand, the development of implantable microchips in the near future might advance surveillance not only to the individual’s location but also to physiological signs (offender’s heart rate and blood pressure) which could serve as indicators for potential recidivism (Cotter and de Lint 2009). Other advanced devices could even incorporate a miniature video camera (Black and Smith 2003). Furthermore, the use of automated disciplinary action in the case of violations has also been contemplated; this would likely mean the use of immobilizing electric current pulses (Whitfield 1997). Convicted pedophiles and other sexual offenders have been suggested as possible target groups for these severe and invasive technologies. Implantation and removal procedures, the use of additive biochemical features, as well as the use of electric current pulses would definitely raise serious ethical concerns (e.g., human rights, data protection).

Closely connected with these ethical concerns is the second ground for anxiety and apprehension. As GPS EM proliferates, it is increasingly likely that it will be applied for the duration of a person’s life, particularly in the case of socalled dangerous offenders, such as those who have committed sexual and/or serious violent offenses. The increasing application of GPS EM implies an over-reliance on technology, which overemphasizes surveillance and enforcement at the expense of rehabilitation (Payne and DeMichele 2011). However, risk assessments place prominence on background or static factors, while dynamic or changing offender characteristics take a backseat role. Moreover, the treatment perspective is neglected by a “standard” application of EM, especially one that does not differentiate between the heterogeneous types of sexual offenders. However, during the past decades, EM has consistently been applied homogenously to a diverse group of offenders. Paradoxically, whereas EM technology is embedded in an ongoing process of sophisticated development, a false sense of security is widespread due to the limited knowledge of its operating mode (Payne and DeMichele 2011). Despite misunderstandings about the functionality of GPS EM, misconceptions also exist about the typical manner of offending in sexual offense cases. For example, most children are sexually abused within their family or acquaintance context; in contrast, GPS monitoring addresses the minority of sexual offenders who commit anonymous sexual assaults.

The third ground for concern has to do with the crucial question of rehabilitation by means of EM. The rehabilitative potential of EM still remains unclear, and empirical knowledge in this field is in its infancy. Of those empirical findings that do exist, they hint at the positive structuring function of EM for the offender’s life, especially with regard to the fulfillment of treatment obligations. However, in practical terms, a tendency can be observed towards the use of EM as a stand-alone sanction with the focus on punishment rather than treatment (Nellis 2011; Nellis et al. 2013). In theory, the use of EM solely as a form of punishment is to be strongly opposed, due especially to the negative aspects of surveillance and repression. From this perspective, EM should best be understood as one tool in a multimodal program of supervision, a program that should ideally be individually tailored for each and every offender.


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