Article Reviewed: Bonta, J., Wallace-Capretta, S., & Rooney, J. (2000). Can electronic monitoring make a difference? An evaluation of three Canadian programs. Crime & Delinquency, 46(1), 61-75.
Electronic monitoring (EM) was implemented in the United States during the 1980s in order to enforce house arrest. This sanction consists of an electronic device, worn by the offender that emits a signal indicating the offender's location to authorities when the offender leaves his or her residence. Although probationers were originally sentenced to EM, the expectations of this cost-effective, community-based alternative to incarceration lead to its substantial use with the inmate population. The popularity of EM programs has continued to flourish, especially in the United States. Currently, four Canadian provinces (Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Ontario) employ EM programs.
According to Bonta, Wallace-Capretta and Rooney (2000), evaluation studies of EM have raised two significant questions. First, the authors query whether EM is a "true alternative to incarceration" or whether it simply has a "net-widening effect?" Specifically, they suggest that most EM programs utilize highly stringent selection processes to screen out offenders with a history of violence, ensuring that only low risk candidates are placed on the sanction. Bonta et al. report that the low-risk nature of many electronically monitored offenders appears to represent a group who could be managed in the community in a less intrusive manner. Thus, in accordance with other researchers, the authors suggest that EM serves to widen the correctional net.
The second question posed by the Bonta et al. is whether EM ensures public safety in an improved manner than more traditional criminal justice sanctions such as probation? In order for this to occur, the authors suggest that EM will not only have to prevent supervised offenders from committing crime but also successfully reintegrate them into the community. Unfortunately, the value of EM in reducing recidivism has been faced with methodological limitations (i.e. inappropriate comparison groups and uncontrolled offender risk level). As such, the authors note that it is difficult to determine whether low recidivism rates are attributed to the program or the risk level of the offenders. Accordingly, in order to analyze the impact of EM, the present study employed two control groups (offender and probationers), matched on offender risk score.
Three provinces with EM programs (British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland) participated in the evaluation. The EM programs differed in setting (Saskatchewan is court based while British Columbia and Newfoundland are corrections based) and in the type of supervision (in British Columbia supervision is provided by correctional officers while in the other two provinces supervision is provided by probation officers). Additional program variations included the following: in Saskatchewan EM offenders are part of the Intensive Supervision Probation program and; in Newfoundland EM offenders were required to attend an intensive treatment program.
In order to compare important offender risk factors, 262 EM participants (125 from British Columbia, 56 from Newfoundland and 81 from Saskatchewan) were matched with 240 incarcerated offenders (75 from British Columbia, 100 from Newfoundland and 81 from Saskatchewan) and 30 probationers (17 from Newfoundland and 13 from Saskatchewan). Participants completed a number of questionnaires, as well as, permitted research staff to review their correctional files. The Self-Report Questionnaire (SRQ), asked questions about a wide-range of criminal history and personal-social information. Information from the SRQ was used to score the Level of Service Inventory (LSI-R) and produce a risk-need classification. The second questionnaire (which was not completed by the inmate population) asked participants to describe their views of program. In addition, all offenders completed exit questionnaires during the evaluation. EM supervisors also completed questionnaires with regards to their views of the program and potential benefits for clientele.
According to Bonta et al., the average age of EM participants ranged from 28.8 years in Newfoundland to 31.4 years in Saskatchewan. Offenders in Newfoundland had the highest rate of unemployment (71.4% compared to 44% in BC and 36.3% in Saskatchewan) and substance abuse (50.9% compared to 32.3% in British Columbia). In Saskatchewan, approximately half of the participants were of Aboriginal status (compared with 4.8% British Columbia and 0.0% in Newfoundland). The criminal history of participants varied among the provinces with participants in Saskatchewan having the fewest number of prior incarcerations. In addition, the most serious offence in Saskatchewan and British Columbia were property offences, while liquor/traffic offences were the most severe in British Columbia.
The results indicate a number of similarities among the EM participants. For instance, the majority of EM offenders successfully completed the program. This result occurred despite the differences in program length; offenders in Saskatchewan spent the longest time on EM (139.3) days as compared to offenders in Newfoundland (71.6 days) and British Columbia (37.3 days). The recidivism rate of all participants was reported one year after the completion of the program or release from prison. EM offenders demonstrated lower recidivism rates than both the inmates and the probationers. This may lead one to conclude that EM is effective at reducing recidivism rates. However, when risk level was controlled for, no differences with regards to recidivism were found between the EM offenders, inmates and probationers. Therefore, as noted by Bonta et al., offender risk is a significant variable in explaining differences in recidivism rates.
The analysis risk level revealed an additional significant finding. EM offenders from Newfoundland scored significantly higher on risk than offenders in other two provinces, yet maintained similar completion and recidivism rates. Bonta et al. suggest that the treatment they received attributed to the lower rate of recidivism. According to the authors, this is consistent with general research literature that suggests that offender treatment, rather than a sanction, is the most effective approach to rehabilitation.
The perception among participants and supervisors varied with regards to the type of program (i.e. corrections or probations based). Participants perceived supervision provided by a correctional officer in a less positive manner as compared to a probation officer. When questioned about the crime control potential of EM, both participants of probation supervisors and probation supervisors were hopeful that electronic monitoring would assist offenders in avoiding crime; however their views were unrelated to recidivism.
Overall, the findings of Bonta et al. fail to demonstrate that EM (a) is a true alternative to incarceration and (b) is effective at reducing recidivism. Not only were a substantial proportion of EM offender's low risk that may be successfully managed in the community by probation alone, but also EM had no significant effect on the future criminal behaviour of the offenders. Bonta et al. report that the impact of EM maybe dependent on the outcome desired. They report that if program completion is the goal, then the surveillance aspect of EM may be sufficient in having offenders complete the sanction without incident. However, if the goal is reduced recidivism, the authors suggest that EM may not be warranted.
In their discussion, Bonta et al. address the potential of EM as a cost effective alternative to imprisonment. Although the authors did not conduct a cost-savings analysis this outcome was perceived to be unlikely. In Saskatchewan, offenders assigned to either intensive probation or intensive probation with electronic monitoring did not differ with regards to risk level or recidivism rates. Although caution must be used with regards to the small probation sample size (n = 17), Bonta et al. suggest that the net-widening effect of EM contradicts the position that EM is a less expensive alternative to incarceration.
Although the present study improves upon prior evaluations through the use of comparison groups and by controlling for risk, it is subject to a number of limitations. First, the small sample of probationers in Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and the lack of probationers from British Columbia from inclusion in the study, limits the strength of the outcomes. Second, the measures used in this study are self-report and rely on the responses of the participants. Therefore, the participant's answers may reflect what they perceive as socially desirable rather than how they really think, feel and act.
In summary, this article provides a clear indication of the need to further evaluate the use of EM. If EM is used with low risk offenders, who do not differ in risk level and subsequent future criminal behaviour from non-EM offenders, why does the criminal justice system continue to utilize this sanction? Not only is EM continually utilized with adults, it has been expanded to youth populations as well. For example, in Saskatchewan a youth electronic monitoring program is currently being piloted. Hence, there is a clear need to evaluate the effectiveness of this sanction with young offenders. In addition, the outcome of the present study supports previous research, which emphasizes the application of intensive, structured treatment in order to reduce criminal behaviour, as opposed to intensive monitoring programs. However, to date, only one province in Canada has required EM offenders to attend a community-based, intensive treatment program. It is suggested that criminal justice professionals take a long, hard look at the goals and perceived outcomes of EM prior to its implementation.
Kimberly Buchanan* University of Regina
* Correspondence should be addressed to: Kimberly Buchanan, MA Candidate--Clinical Psychology Program, Research Associate, Canadian Institute for Peace, Justice and Security, University of Regina, Regina, Saskatchewan, S4S 0A2. Phone: 306-337-2373. Fax: 306-585-4827. E-Mail: email@example.com…