Technological Incarceration and the End of the Prison Crisis

Mirko Bagaric, Dan Hunter, & Gabrielle Wolf | January 1, 2018

The United States imprisons more of its people than any nation on Earth, and by a considerable margin. Criminals attract little empathy and have no political capital. Consequently, it is not surprising that, over the past forty years, there have been no concerted or unified efforts to stem the rapid increase in incarceration levels in the United States. Nevertheless, there has recently been a growing realization that even the world’s biggest economy cannot readily sustain the $80 billion annual cost of imprisoning more than two million of its citizens. No principled, wide-ranging solution has yet been advanced, however. To resolve the crisis, this Article proposes a major revolution to the prison sector that would see technology, for the first time, pervasively incorporated into the punishment of criminals and result in the closure of nearly all prisons in the United States. The alternative to prison that we propose involves the fusion of three technological systems. First, offenders would be required to wear electronic ankle bracelets that monitor their location and ensure they do not move outside of the geographical areas to which they would be confined. Second, prisoners would be compelled to wear sensors so that unlawful or suspicious activity could be monitored remotely by computers. Third, conducted energy devices would be used remotely to immobilize prisoners who attempt to escape their areas of confinement or commit other crimes. The integrated systems described in this Article could lead to the closure of more than 95% of prisons in the United States. We demonstrate that the technological and surveillance devices can achieve all of the appropriate objectives of imprisonment, including the imposition of proportionate punishment and community protection. In our proposal, only offenders who have committed capital offenses or equivalent crimes, or who attempt to escape from technological custody, would remain in conventional brick-and-mortar prisons. As a result, our proposal would convert prisons from a major societal industry to a curious societal anomaly. If these reforms are implemented, the United States would spend a fraction of the amount currently expended on conventional prisons on a normatively superior mechanism for dealing with society’s criminals.