Prison reform has become a hot topic in recent years. And rightly so. In the last two years, the U.S. has logged more prisoners than any other country and a greater percentage of its population was in prison than in any other country in the world. Yes, in the world.
Not surprisingly, this “mass incarceration” has led to overcrowded prisons—an issue that not only puts public safety at risk, but as any state legislator will tell you, is also expensive. According to the Pew Center on the States, www.pewstates.org, state and federal spending on corrections has grown 400% throughout the past 20 years, from about $12 billion to about $60 billion. And while costs differ depending on where you live, keeping a criminal behind bars takes a lot of taxpayer dollars, ranging from approximately $18,000 per year per prisoner in Mississippi to a whopping $50,000 per year per prisoner in California.
As states revaluate their budgets, legislators are taking a close look at corrections, passing laws and allocating funds toward prison reform. Just this month, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed legislation that will revamp the state’s criminal-justice system to provide alternative sentences for nonviolent offenders and, hopefully, reduce soaring prison costs. The challenge is finding alternative sentencing approaches that not only maintain public safety, but keep offenders from re-entering the system. In other words, the goal is to reform criminals.
One way municipalities are attacking the issue is through electronic monitoring. By keeping tabs on offenders, police officers and caseworkers can hold criminals accountable and help integrate them back into the community without putting the public at risk. And the money-saving opportunities are astounding. The cost benefit of electronic monitoring versus incarceration is tenfold. If it costs $60 per day to put an offender behind bars, it only costs $6 to monitor this person.
Even with an impressive value proposition, monitoring technology still comes with a cost. Advanced tracking technologies like GPS offer accurate and realtime location-based information, but they are also expensive—not a huge selling point for budget-strapped municipalities. Less-advanced technologies like RF (radio frequency) can be a fraction of the cost of GPS, but don’t offer the immediate location information needed to monitor higher-risk offenders.
Gryphex, www.gryphex.com, a three-year-old company based in Alpharetta, Ga., has found a way to offer municipalities the best of both worlds, developing a device that can switch between both RF and GPS, depending on the risk level of the offender.
“We decided that there needed to be this middle ground to span the accountability between the highest-risk offender and the lowest risk,” explains J.B. Colletta, vice president of product management for the company. “We weren’t looking to duplicate or emulate what was out there. We were actually looking to create a brand new type of device.”
Gryphex’s device, which looks like a traditional ankle monitor, is jam packed with a GPS system, RF antenna, and cellular communication. Using a Web app, the unit can be customized for any combination of GPS or RF tracking configuration. That means, for example, a low-risk offender on house arrest can be monitored using RF to keep costs low, but if his risk profile increases based on his behavior, the officer or case manager can turn on the GPS functionality. With a simple click, an offender’s status can be changed instantly.
In addition to changing supervision levels, the app allows law-enforcement officials to monitor location points, set zones, and establish exceptions. They can even set up the system to send text messages or an email when an offender violates the terms of his probation, whether that means missing curfew or visiting an off-limits location.
When this technology is paired with comprehensive community-service programs, Colletta believes there is real potential to change our corrections system. “When you marry those up, it is as tough on crime as you can get behind bars, but it’s way more effective in terms of keeping people from returning back to prison or jail, keeping the community safe, and being responsible with the tax payers’ dollar,” he says. “It’s a virtual prison. You are pulling people into the walls that need to be in the walls, and you are pulling people out of the walls that don’t need to be inside—but they are all still being managed.”
But how much of an impact can technology really make? Colletta says a lot. Out of the 3 million nonviolent offenders who are eligible for electronic monitoring and community-service programs, Colletta estimates only 6% are using some type of technology.
“They are funding expense dollars to be able to grow these programs three times their current size, but they are not funding the (employee) head count,” he says. “How are they going to do that? There needs to be some tools and practices to do that. And if it’s not ours, it’s somebody else’s tool that they are going to use.”