On May 24 Boston Police Commissioner told an audience of fellow members of the Mass. Major City Chiefs’ Association that the adoption of a simple technological process developed by the Mass. Probation Department can “help cut crime in Massachusetts by 50%.”
The technology is the electronic ankle bracelet. The unit is required of certain pre-trial defendants and many individuals on probation. The anklet is not the proverbial silver bullet. By themselves the devices are just assemblages of plastic, copper and silicon chips. The commish can make this claim not on the high-tech wizardry of the device but because the use of the device fits like a keystone into an existing big idea. That big idea is deterrence.
Police and partners know that a tiny minority of individuals commit a disproportionate share of crimes. Every category of crime has its impact players: the tiny number of intensely criminal individuals who generate most of the problems. Whether it’s firearm violence or car breaks, every crime category has its own All-Star Team. Police know who these Impact Players are, they know what they do. They are before the courts on a regular basis. This small number of individuals generates thousands upon thousands of court appearances. Here we encounter a critical failing in the process.
Once we have one of these Impact Players before the bench, we need to be able to do something besides release him or her. Bail laws are intended to ensure the defendant’s appearance at the next court date. Pre-trial detention is too expensive and hard to get in any case. Probation has too few people to supervise such folks properly. This is where the technological fix is really an advancement of justice and safety.
The proposition for the use of the anklet is this.
1. The GPS technology links the anklet to the heavens, to satellites to be specific. They keep track of the defendant’s movements around the clock. If the defendant stays away from places he or she is not supposed to be, such as crime scenes and areas that are restricted by the terms of his probation, no one bugs the anklet wearer. But should a crime occur in proximity to the individual, the program can alert the police. It can tell, by the way, the difference between someone going out to his front steps to check out a suspicious noise and someone spending a suspicious amount of time in and around the scene before, during and/or after an incident.
2. With the defendant aware of point #1, he or she is likely to alter his behavior to avoid places he is not supposed to be. By leveraging this behavior change in individuals most likely to commit new crimes we deter crime. The Impact Players will start to make choices that will result in the massive crime declines Commissioner Davis forecast. The choice as always belongs to the potential offender. If the rest of us got to decide for him we would have him do the right thing. But the rest of us don’t get to make that choice. We can only influence it. And the anklet properly and strategically applied will leverage many better choices. At some point it is likely that the volume of good decisions reached the tipping point, bringing the big declines. It will not hurt either that more All Stars will go back to prison for violating terms of probation and for new crimes.
The use of monitoring in this way should also enhance the quality of justice by enhancing the accountability and credibility of all the institutions in the criminal justice process, starting with the judiciary. This is what we saw with Ceasefire and Nite lite in the 1990’s.
Judges will weigh information and informed opinion received from probation, police and prosecutors. The three P’s will be accountable to one another and the judge for the quality of the arguments they make. Judges will have an easy path to exercising wisdom beyond the four corners of the individual case and just understanding what the laws mean.
Today we arrested Jim Jordan for possession of stolen goods. Under current thinking, we release Mr. Jordan, because the charge against him is light. We don’t have room for him in jail, bail is designed to ensure appearances and is not to be punishment. The judge does not take into consideration the 67 arraignments before this one, nor the as yet unknown number he has yet to rack up. Mr. Jordan is a perennial member of our community’s All-Star Team so we know that under the conventional approach he has dozens more appearances ahead of him. Under the conventional approach, no one before the bench is making much of an argument as to why Mr. J. should be subject to any pre-trial attention. But we all point fingers later.
Under the pre-trial monitoring model, the institutional agents before the judge reach a rough consensus on the defendant’s dangerousness. The fair, reasoned and informed arguments make it easier for the judge to rule in favor of monitoring. And the rest could be history…
A criminal justice system that begins to behave like a system will be a revelation to the Impact Players. The anklets must be administered with the same attention to procedural justice as that which has guided the earlier intervention efforts aimed to achieve deterrence. It will give Players a new set of norms to contend with in the community. Violating the norms will not just be a “police matter” but a matter of urgent concern for other institutions as well.