About time for electronic monitoring?

Prisoner electronic monitoring is a brilliant penny-pinching move, but its success will depend on how it is managed in the long-run.

Read time 4min 10sec

So the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) recently confirmed plans to roll out electronic monitoring of offenders nationally and - while my initial response was "It's about time" - I'm now curious about what it will take for the system to be successful.

But let's track back a bit.

By "electronic monitoring", I'm referring to offenders being placed under surveillance using ankle bracelets equipped with GPS and communication technology. The system is designed to ensure manageable prison populations, while saving the average amount of money spent on offenders.

To test the waters, the DCS launched a pilot project in March 2012, placing 150 offenders under constant surveillance and monitoring their movements in a control room at the department's Pretoria head office.

National rollout then begs the question: is its implementation overdue? Let's look at the numbers.

Struggle for space

Correctional services minister Sibusiso Ndebele said in November last year that SA's rate of imprisonment is the highest in Africa.

Nigeria, the continent's most densely populated country, with 166.3 million people, has approximately 51 560 inmates.

We, on the other hand, have a daily average inmate population of 155 836 in 243 correctional facilities across all provinces, according to the National Treasury's Estimates of National Expenditure document.

SA has 51.8 million citizens (and more than three times the amount of prisoners than Nigeria), but the point here is less about incarceration rates than it is about a struggle for space.

Ndebele noted there were 112 121 sentenced offenders in November and, if you look closely at the current numbers, you'll find around 45 000 prisoners are waiting for their trials to conclude.

Meanwhile, 15% to 20% of awaiting-trial detainees are in custody, because they cannot afford bail, says Ndebele.

Electronic monitoring has been acknowledged by the DCS as key to curbing overcrowding in prisons, but its expansion won't be rushed - a projected 0.69% of offenders will be placed under electronic monitoring in 2013/14 while this will increase to just to 2.6% in 2016/17.

Money, money, money

The second key question is just how much electronic monitoring will cost in the long run.

Why pay R9 876 a month to incarcerate one inmate when you can pay R3 379 to have them under electronic surveillance?

According to Ndebele, the latter amount is what it costs to maintain offenders in the electronic monitoring system, as opposed to having them incarcerated.

In one month, the DCS would save about R69 million for more than 10 000 prisoners serving a sentence of two years or less.

While the numbers are promising, the DCS would obviously need to make it abundantly clear who would qualify to be placed in the electronic monitoring system.

Will it work?

Time will tell whether SA pulls this one off, but based on the pilot programme, the DCS is optimistic about its success.

Further afield, the US Department of Justice ran a study in 2011 and found electronic monitoring in the state of Florida reduced repeat offending by 31%.

The study was conducted over six years and found, among other things, that administrators were better able to manage parolees in the programme, while some offenders interviewed noted ankle bracelets did not affect the likelihood that they would still commit crime.

In one month, the DCS would save about R69 million for more than 10 000 prisoners serving a sentence of two years or less.

Meanwhile, UK-based think tank Policy Exchange suggests electronic monitoring is more effective if managed and controlled by police and correctional services officials rather than private security firms, as is the case in that region.

So while a tender process is under way to map the path for SA's national rollout of the programme, the DCS would do well to consider what would best suit its implementation and future in a local context.

Ndebele said in his government blog last week that, on average, 3 827 parole applications are approved every month.

He also said recommendations for parole are submitted by the Case Management Committee, so I doubt we'd see a sudden spike in parole applications since offenders have to meet certain conditions to qualify for parole.

In a nutshell: SA's prison population, coupled with the need for better budgeting, makes electronic monitoring a long overdue measure taken by the DCS.

But let's not forget that even though it's moving beyond the pilot phase, the system will not immediately solve overcrowding, nor will it address repeat offending if it's not aligned with thorough correctional supervision programmes.

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