The concept of incarceration takes many names whose differences often go unnoticed. Penitentiary, correctional facility, prison, reformatory, detention center, juvie, all are common vernacular assumed to mean the same thing, yet in actuality, differ greatly. We really can’t come to a consensus on the purpose of punishment — a troubling determination, given the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world.

Since we can’t really decide on what the purpose of punishment is, we consequently have a hard time determining how to go about achieving the elusive purpose.

Many states make use of electronic tracking with offenders of probation, or as a substitution for jail time. Electronic tracking can include GPS monitoring to provide constant information regarding the whereabouts of an offender, radio frequency monitoring, which is used to enforce curfews, and alcohol monitoring, which uses a transdermal device to measure the alcohol content in perspiration.

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Between 2005 and 2015, the use of electronic offender-tracking rose by nearly 140 percent. Wisconsin has followed a similar trend. In 2008-09, 158 Wisconsinites were strapped with ankle monitors, but by 2017, that figure had increased by a factor of 10, with the state spending about $9.7 million annually on monitoring programs.

One study from California found despite the program’s cost, GPS monitoring was effective in reducing recidivism by 38 percent. But similar data is few and far between. Generally speaking, other states have not seen similar results. According the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Wisconsin state officials have failed to produce any sort of documentation detailing the effectiveness or reliability of GPS tracking in our state.

Rather, technological malfunctions and unconstitutional payment practices and have meant these programs are doing greater harm than good. The WCIJ said, in one month, the Wisconsin state monitoring center lost cell connection an average of about 64 times per offender — an issue which often results in officers needing to be dispatched to check in on the offender, lest the connection loss is a result of offender tampering with their ankle monitor. Of the 52 arrest warrants the DOC Monitoring Center issued, 13 are expected to be a result of technical problems with the equipment.

Cody McCormick is Wisconsin native who has spent most of the past seven years either in jail or on probation. According to the WCIJ, McCormick had to move because his home had poor cell reception and constant false alerts to the monitoring center led to him being frequently arrested, detained for days at a time and losing his job.

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Per the article, “Wisconsin DOC officials said the program’s benefits outweigh any technical drawbacks … the bracelets provide a ‘deterrent effect since offenders know they are being tracked.’”

This is a commonly cited advantage of GPS tracking — if offenders know they’re being monitored, they’ll be more likely to hold themselves accountable for their actions and less likely to commit crimes for fear of being caught. Robert Gable, an often credited pioneer of electronically monitoring criminal offenders, said, “Offenders tend to push limits and ignore threats. That, after all, is why they landed in jail or prison.” In other words, the threat of punishment from misusing the ankle bracelet won’t necessarily have a substantial impact.

Gable argues a more effective way to reduce recidivism is to promote positive reinforcement. He advocates for use of cell phones to send reminders to offenders about court dates, job interviews, doctor’s appointments, parole meetings and other important events, as well as to positively reaffirm offenders for doing things like attending parole meetings. Gable believes positive reinforcement helps past offenders with their journey of reintegration into society, while electronic monitoring doesn’t have a lasting impact.

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So what is the solution  — should we require offenders to have ankle monitors for life, or should we perhaps reevaluate their use altogether?

This brings us back to the question of the purpose of punishment. If the purpose is simply to ensure law-abiding citizens are safe, then we could just require every convicted felon to wear an ankle monitor for life. In fact, why even let offenders out of prison at all? That would be the most certain way to ensure they don’t commit crimes against innocent people again.

Since we don’t do that (because it’s absurd), it’s clear we do have an interest in rehabilitating people and encouraging them to productively re-engage in society. Ankle monitoring does not accomplish this. It is important to monitor past offenders’ progress post-prison, but if we invested more money in programs that positively encouraged improvement, we wouldn’t need to invest as much in monitoring.

Cait Gibbons ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in math with a certificate in Chinese