An introduction to the report  “Better than Human”? Smartphones, Artificial Intelligence and Ultra-Punitive Electronic Monitoring‘ by Prof. Mike Nellis

New developments in electronic monitoring (EM) have long been a significant aspect of the conversations we have about “future-proofing” the probation service – and we will be kept busy! The attached paper discusses two, ostensibly quite dissimilar, proposals for the future of EM. One comes from the EM industry, and is with us now: it is ostensibly supportive of rehabilitation and reintegration, but has hidden implications. The other is undeniably scholarly but quite implausible in the terms proposed, yet deeply unsettling in the unexpected encouragement it gives to extreme, high-tech punitiveness. Both relate to the USA, a proportionately low user of EM for offenders compared to Europe, but still an important pacesetter of technological innovation (real and imagined), and while no longer the sole global reference point on “ways ahead” in EM its example still has the capacity to influence other countries.

The first proposal is already a patchy reality – the use of smartphones and apps as a form of “electronic monitoring plus” for lower risk offenders. Smartphones can track locations, facilitate voice communication and text messaging, and enable video-verification of one’s surroundings, companions and use of alcohol monitoring equipment. Apps could serve a variety of educational, rehabilitative and therapeutic functions that could once have been undertaken face-to-face, as online educational, employment and mental health apps already do. This overlaps with contemporary probation officers own patchy appropriation of smartphones and apps for communication and education as a supplement to face-to-face supervision. Therein lies the appeal of smartphone EM to some of its champions in the EM industry: it only goes a little way further than what probation officers are already willing to do, and, deployed properly, it could enable fewer probation staff to manage even larger caseloads. Will governments refuse this? Lower risk offenders are a largely untapped market from the standpoint of the industry, and smartphone EM stands a chance of permeating that market in ways that RF and GPS EM have not done, both for reasons of cost and liberal concern about netwidening. Given the ease with which the intensity of monitoring can be calibrated and varied to suit the entire range of risk and need profiles, and given the ubiquity of digitally mediated social relationships in everyday life, the EM industry does not see netwidening as an insurmountable issue.

The second proposal, by three liberal legal academics in Australia, for a form of ultra-punitive EM that would, over a fifteen year period, end the hideous, expensive, mass incarceration of 2 million people as we know it in the US – and substitute humane, cheaper “technological incarceration” instead, will fortunately never be implemented in the transformative way they envisage. Mass incarceration developed in the US less because there was no suitable alternative to custody available and more to contain the problems created by endemic racism, extreme inequality and the political destruction of a social safety net. Quite why liberal legal academics think that combining 24/7 GPS tracking and tight inclusion zones with biometric sensor harnesses monitoring posture and behaviour (sleeping, fighting, talking etc), and dealing with non-compliance by remote (possibly automated) electro-shock punishments is a politically feasible, let alone an ethically defensible solution to mass incarceration is a mystery. Probation figures nowhere in it. The proposal may seem like a caricature of all the dystopian technosolutions imagined in American science fiction, but its provenance among influential academics bestows intellectual legitimacy on the principle of ultra-punitive EM regardless of its politically feasibility. That anyone, anywhere might want EM that even resembles this, even on a smaller scale, would still be a problem.

Please click on the link to read “Better than Human”? Smartphones, Artificial Intelligence and Ultra-Punitive Electronic Monitoring

Did you read the article and would you like to comment on it? Please send an email to Prof. Mike Nellis: mike.nellis@strath.ac.uk.


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