Correctional Service Canada plans to roll out electronic anklets to monitor parolees – even though its own pilot project found the devices did not work as hoped.
The idea is to ensure that offenders follow the conditions of their release. A tiny proportion of parolees breach those conditions or reoffend, although the number has been getting smaller for four years.
A Correctional Service Canada study found the GPS anklets do not change offenders' behaviour, create more work for parole officers and have numerous technical problems – including false alarms and a tendency to show people to be somewhere they are not.
"You're doing more intervention unnecessarily, catching people in the corrections net who perhaps don't require it," James Bonta, director of Public Safety's research unit, told Parliament's Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security earlier this year.
Proponents say monitoring keeps the public safe by ensuring convicts toe the line. Others say that while the anklets are effective in some circumstances for high-risk offenders, they don't alter a parolee's behaviour; also, by the time officers are notified of a violation, it may be too late to apprehend the person in the act.
"We sometimes think of technology as being perfect. It is not perfect," Mr. Bonta said. "Overall, if I look at the whole body of evidence, I don't think" the anklets make communities safer.
The federal Conservatives' Safe Streets and Communities Act, Bill C-10, allows Correctional Service Canada to impose electronic monitoring on an offender with geographic restrictions on temporary absence, work release, parole, statutory release or long-term supervision. Correctional Service Canada intends to begin the program in the fall of 2013.
Electronic monitoring for offenders has been around since the mid-1960s. Seven provinces use anklets for offenders on probation. Studies so far are inconclusive on whether and when they're worth it.
Monitoring methods vary. Some programs are actively watched from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with activity logged overnight. In Saskatchewan, radio frequencies are sent to a server, and notices of violations or alerts go to officers' cellphones or a community correctional centre.
In a choice between electronic monitoring or a stint behind bars, studies suggest the former saves money and keeps the offender out of an environment that often contributes to recidivism. The benefits of putting a parolee on a monitoring device during a conditional release are murkier: There's no demonstrated effect on recidivism and, especially in the case of low-risk offenders, a GPS anklet can actually make reintegration harder.
Between 2008 and 2009, Correctional Service Canada conducted an $856,096 pilot project of anklets for parolees. An evaluation found basic technological challenges: Batteries drained quickly; false tamper alerts were frequent; the GPS system had a tendency to "drift" – to show a person in the wrong location.
While the system "may benefit some offenders," the report states, "the benefits could not be demonstrated in the current evaluation."
In 2010-11, 88 per cent of those on day parole and 76.5 per cent of those on full parole completed the program with no problems. Only 2.4 per cent of day parolees and 6.7 per cent of full parolees reoffended. Both breaches and reoffences have dropped steadily since 2007.
The anklets provide "an opportunity to verify compliance with release conditions and provide additional information for the ongoing assessment of risk to enhance public safety," Correctional Service Canada said in an e-mailed statement this week. "CSC's procurement of new technology will address some of the limitations noted in the first pilot (for example battery life)."
The cost of the anklets and software is $15 per offender per day, although they can be cheaper. Training and staffing can get pricey. Almost all U.S. agencies that use electronic monitoring increased staff faster than those that did not, said Marc Renzema, a criminal justice professor at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.
Correctional Service Canada Commissioner Don Head and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews declined to be interviewed. Addressing the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security in February, Mr. Head argued the anklets' benefits outweighed their drawbacks.
"This will ultimately contribute to strengthening public safety," he said. "The report indicated that there were some deficiencies, but that through amendments to practices and procedures we could address these deficiencies."