The Best Way to Free 30,000 Convicts

In California, where the Supreme Court has ordered prison inmates released, an experiment with ankle bracelets may be in order

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A Supreme Court ruling issued Monday requires California to reduce its prison rolls by 30,000 inmates. The idea is to alleviate overcrowding so severe that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Do I support the decision? Sure. Prison conditions are awful here. Cruelly and unusually so. Like many Golden State residents, however, I worry about the crime rate. Are our streets about to be less safe because our inept government failed to maintain defensible prisons?

As yet, it is possible that no one will actually get out from behind bars. Governor Jerry Brown wants to shift inmates to county jails.

Brown's transfer plan "would solve quite a bit" of the overcrowding problem, though not as quickly as the court wants, said Matthew Cate, secretary of California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "Our goal is to not release inmates at all.'' But the governor's plan would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, to be paid for with tax hikes that could prove politically impossible to implement. And at present, Brown's plan is the only one on the table.

So if prisoners are released?

Criminologists insist the crime rates needn't rise. In fact, they argued in an amicus brief, sending select low-risk prisoners through early release programs can even reduce crime rates, or so data from other jurisdictions suggest. But is a prison system so dysfunctional that the Supreme Court is forcing it to release convicts really going to excel at putting them back out into society in the least damaging way? I have my doubts. State officials here manage to do a lot of things worse than they're done elsewhere.

That's why I am hoping that if they're released, these 30,000 lucky prisoners face one unusual obstacle to recidivism: a sophisticated ankle bracelet that doesn't come off until their original term would've ended. It's an approach Graeme Wood writes about at length in his September 2010 piece in this magazine:

Devices such as the ExacuTrack, along with other advances in both the ways we monitor criminals and the ways we punish them for their transgressions, suggest a revolutionary possibility: that we might turn the conventional prison system inside out for a substantial number of inmates, doing away with the current, expensive array of guards and cells and fences, in favor of a regimen of close, constant surveillance on the outside and swift, certain punishment for any deviations from an established, legally unobjectionable routine. The potential upside is enormous. Not only might such a system save billions of dollars annually, it could theoretically produce far better outcomes, training convicts to become law-abiders rather than more-ruthless lawbreakers.

The ultimate result could be lower crime rates, at a reduced cost, and with considerably less inhumanity in the bargain.

In the same piece, the reader is informed that "in California, the cost per inmate has kept pace with the cost of an Ivy League education, at just shy of $50,000 a year." There's your funding. Perhaps the stars are aligning for the nation's largest ever early release-with-ankle-bracelet experiment. Normally it wold prove impossible to try on this scale. What politician would risk letting the convicts out? But if California has got to release these inmates regardless... so why not? Fitted with ankle bracelets, monitored, and found to serve out their terms without harming the public, perhaps the inmates would tip off the people of this state to the fact that they're wasting millions every year incarcerating nonviolent criminals when an alternative punishment would work better.

Worth a try?

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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