Evaluating the Utility of Electronic Monitoring: Why Don't We Listen to the Research?

Article excerpt

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. …