Can virtual prisons improve rehabilitation?

A Deloitte report touts the idea of using technologies such as risk analysis, geospatial tracking and gamification to get better results from home detention.

After a recent blog post about voting technology, and another where I advocated moving elections online, people were understandably a little wary. But the most poignant comment I got was also the simplest. An anonymous poster said, "Technology is not always the answer…"

Stab me in the heart, why don’t you? Seriously, that's a pretty hard statement to take for those of us who live in a highly technological world. We tend to think that technology might be the solution for everything. And if its not, it just means that a little more work is needed to make it happen.

It was with that in mind that I dove into an interesting report from the Deloitte University Press entitled “Beyond the Bars: A new model of virtual incarceration for low-risk offenders.” The study brings up some interesting ideas about how technology can be used to create a virtual prison for low-risk inmates, allowing them to both be controlled and serve their sentences from their homes.

Home detention, or house arrest, has been around a long time for some offenders, and I'm not completely sure that it is much of a punishment. Many years ago when I was a crime reporter I interviewed a convict who was sentenced to spend a year in his house. I asked him what he did all day and he said that he mostly spent his time watching “Looney Tunes,” an activity that would admittedly drive me crazy, but didn't seem to affect him very much. He was sad that he couldn't "smoke weed" because someone might check up on him.

But debates about punishment aside, the study implies that technologically enhanced home detention — that would combine such things as risk analysis and geospatial tracking — could be effective as a rehabilitation tool. The report sees each offender being issued a cell phone with numbers pre-programmed based on their crimes. So someone with a substance abuse problem could push a button and be connected with a counselor if Bugs Bunny reruns made him want to light up. That connectivity also presents opportunities for training and education.

“Beyond the Bars” even says that gamification could be used to make sure that offenders regularly check in with their parole officers. Detainees would be given points or badges for making it on time to their appointments, which would be virtual video conferences taking place over that same government-issued phone. If they earned enough points, they could be awarded a longer curfew outside the home, a reduction in their sentence or some measure of increased freedom. Before you scoff at that idea, consider that many people released on parole don’t make their appointments, and that often leads to increased risk of participation in new crimes. By encouraging inmates to make it to all their appointments and providing them the support they need to overcome their demons, it makes society safer.

The biggest advantage to a program like this would likely be felt in states such as California, which recently had to release over 33,000 inmates due to a court ruling on overcrowding. The state has no money to build new prisons, but has a robust IT infrastructure that could support a program like the virtual prison. It would allow the state to punish and rehabilitate offenders when the only alternative might be to let them go all together. Obviously the most violent criminals need to be kept away from the rest of society, but many non-violent offenders might successfully be able to work within this program.

So I have mixed feelings. The technologist in me thinks that everything in the report makes sense, assuming the right inmates could be chosen for the program, especially if the alternative is no punishment at all, or serving a couple days of a year-long sentence before having to be released.

But the whole "technology is not always the answer" comment is still ringing in my ears.

So, what do you all think? Would you feel safe having a virtual prison program like this in your community? What if the alternative is simply to have criminals walking your streets with no oversight? It's a sticky issue and not one that will be locked down anytime soon.

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