Under the CARES Act passed by Congress in March 2020, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) transferred thousands of lower-risk prisoners from institutional corrections facilities to home confinement. Recent data suggest that effort did not jeopardize public safety. Based on BOP’s success and emerging evidence about the public safety benefits of electronic monitoring, lawmakers should begin expanding, testing, and evaluating home confinement as a way to help end mass incarceration in the U.S.
To help limit the spread of COVID-19, the CARES Act authorized BOP to allow some prisoners to serve their sentences under home confinement and electronic monitoring instead of inside correctional institutions. In order to reduce public safety risks, eligibility factors included the prisoner’s age, disciplinary history, risk assessment score (lower-risk prisoners were prioritized), and crime of conviction. According to NPR, approximately 11,000 people were transferred from prison to home confinement under those criteria.
New data suggests the CARES Act home confinement program has worked. While a 2016 report found that 27 percent of federal prisoners were rearrested within two years of release, only 17 of the 11,000 people (or 0.15 percent) serving home confinement sentences under the CARES Act have been charged with new crimes.
These numbers suggest home confinement can sometimes match prison’s public safety benefits. The prospect of imprisonment doesn’t do much to deter crime as most criminals know they won’t get caught. What’s more, punishments are imposed too long after crimes are committed to make much difference. Prisons can provide a means for deserved punishment, but punishment alone isn’t a sufficient basis for imprisonment in many cases. Only prison’s incapacitation function–that is,the physical separation of people who would hurt other people from the people they would hurt–reliably creates net social benefits. If electronic monitoring offers comparable incapacitation at lower costs, the case for prison in those cases is weakened considerably.
Recent research from around the world suggests electronic monitoring is not only an effective substitute for imprisonment but that it might produce better public safety outcomes. Researchers in Norway found that electronic monitoring reduced reoffending by 10 percent in the first 24 months. In Australia, the reduction was 16 percent. Researchers in France found the probability of reconviction after assignment to electronic monitoring was lower than among those assigned to prison after five years. And in Argentina, researchers found electronic monitoring led to a significant drop in reoffending relative to imprisonment, even among more serious offenders.
Given this evidence and the early success of BOP’s home confinement program, lawmakers should seriously consider electronic monitoring as a permanent alternative to incarceration for lower-risk offenders. The 11,000 people transferred to home confinement under the CARES Act represented around seven percent of the federal prison population at the time. State prison systems house a much larger percentage of violent offenders than the federal system. Still, it’s reasonable to assume that tens of thousands of state prisoners nationwide are good candidates for home confinement.
Despite electronic monitoring’s potential to significantly reduce the number of people held in American prisons, some progressives oppose its use. They deride monitoring as “e-carceration,” and bafflingly argue that home confinement is fundamentally the same as imprisonment. Certainly, electronic monitoring is uncomfortable and inconvenient for the offender, and home confinement does entail significant and necessary restrictions on liberty and privacy. But prisons can be cruel, violent, and even deadly places, and truly deserving incarcerated people should be given the option to choose less restrictive confinement.
There are still many questions about how to structure home confinement programs to maximize incapacitation and minimize recidivism. For example, what are the ideal eligibility criteria? Should frequent drug and alcohol testing be included? Should rehabilitative programming be offered or mandated? Should offenders be allowed to earn greater freedom and privacy? Experimentation and evaluation should help answer these vital questions.
Lawmakers should seize the opportunity to begin robust testing of home confinement programs. To be sure, neither the results of the CARES Act program nor the available evidence on electronic monitoring by themselves justify immediately transferring a sizable portion of the nation’s prisoners out of institutional confinement. Still, it would be unwise to ignore their lessons. The potential social benefits of a non-prison sanction that effectively incapacitates criminals are enormous. Not only could effective home confinement reduce crime, but it could also help end mass incarceration in America.