The following op-ed was co-authored by R Street Research Associate Jon Haggerty.
On any given day, roughly 750,000 people are locked up in American jails. Indeed, one-in-three incarcerated persons are sitting in local jails, rather than state or federal prisons. These staggering numbers ensure the United States maintains the highest incarceration rates in the world. Ultimately, finding solutions to our incarceration problem may require the innovation and cost-effectiveness that only technology can provide.
In an average year, 11 million people will churn through the jail system, many of whom have not been convicted of any crime but are simply too poor to post bail. This “pre-trial” population has driven the 99 percent growth in jail populations over the past 15 years.
All of these bodies behind bars have devastating effects not only on citizens — those who are locked up and their families — but also on taxpayers. In Texas alone, it’s estimated that approximately 24,000 low-risk individuals are locked up awaiting disposition of their cases. At an average daily cost of roughly $59 to house an inmate, these low-risk offenders cost the state slightly less than $1.5 million a day, or $520 million a year. In a state like California, it costs roughly $190 a day to house inmates.
Tragically, even brief jail stints are associated with disturbing rates of suicide — outpacing prison suicides. Being forced to miss work for multiple days can cause a legally innocent person to lose their job, face eviction and not be able to pay taxes. Moreover, the length of pre-trial detention is strongly correlated with increased recidivism.
But efforts to reduce jail populations dramatically pose serious logistical challenges for parole and pretrial release officers, who would be burdened with larger caseloads. This is where innovation and technology can and should take a leading role. For instance, new smartphone technologies grant caseworkers flexibility to deal with an increase in supervisees.
One example is Verie, an app that allows an officer to verify the identity and location of a probationer or parolee. The app uses a facial biometric solution to confirm a parolee’s identity whenever the officer chooses to confirm the client’s location. Using location-based service and real-time location services, it tracks a person in real time for as long as their phone’s GPS is turned on.
While there are understandable privacy concerns when an officer has the ability to monitor every moment of a person’s life, it surely beats the alternative of sitting in a jail cell. Some probation and parole rules require “surprise checks” from officers at the workplace of individual out on release. These unannounced visits are common and can be sufficiently humiliating to deter some parolees from seeking employment, meaning they don’t pay taxes and suffer a diminished quality of life. An app that combines tracking and communications removes the need for such invasive tactics.
At a projected cost of $567 per smartphone, it’s also substantially cheaper for the inmate than the costs he or she would face while locked up. Alternatively, the government could loan out the phones. Admittedly, handing an accused person a smartphone would be a tough political sell and would require persuading a skeptical public. But the savings to taxpayers can be proven with simple math.
Other reforms can be made inside the jailhouse. One jail in Cook County, Ill., upgraded their management software to the Offender360 system, which allows jail administrators to catalog details about every offender, including sentencing, good behavior, grievances and the nature of offenses. A primary benefit is that it allows administrators to keep nonviolent, first-time offenders from being kept longer than necessary or possibly institutionalized.
Of course, bringing down jail populations also requires reducing the number of people we send to jail, by passing sentencing reform and enhancing diversion and deflections systems. Moreover, just as important as preventing people from entering the system is ensuring that those who have been arrested may resume their lives during the judicial process. Entering an era of increasing bipartisan support for change (see Newt Gingrich and Jay-Z) along with myriad emerging technologies, it simply does not make sense to cling to a beleaguered and costly status quo.
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