Electronic Jewelry

Ronnie was on a sure path to trouble. Only 16 and already he was in juvenile court for breaking and entering several houses. But the judge decided to take a chance on the boy. Instead of sending him to jail, he sentenced Ronnie to house arrest, to be enforced by an electric monitoring system. So as Ronnie left the courtroom with his mother that day, he was fitted with an ankle bracelet-a tamper-resistant device that transmitted a radio signal every few seconds to a receiver in his home. The home receiver was linked to a central computer at a corrections department, which kept tabs on whether Ronnie was sticking to his curfew rules. When he first laid eyes on the ankle bracelet, Ronnie told the Christian Science Monitor, "my whole leg was shaking." But today he's grateful the judge took a chance on alternative sentencing. The electronic monitor turned out to give Ronnie just the supervision he needed to change his ways. For example, when it was time for him to go home early, he could tell his friends without losing face-just by pointing to his ankle. They understood immediately. Today Ronnie says the ankle bracelet turned him off the destructive path he was on. He calls it his "guardian angel." Ronnie's story is not unique. Overcrowded prisons and high rates of repeat offenders are pushing criminal justice officials to search for alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders: things like community service, house arrest, work-release programs, boot camps. Electronic monitoring, one study found, is especially effective with offenders who have lifestyle problems-from alcohol and drug abuse to gang activity. Like Ronnie, many offenders say the threat of immediate detection helped them overcome destructive habits. "I stopped drinking . . . ," said one offender. "Haven't missed a day of work in six months," said another. Another benefit of electronic monitoring is the cost: It's a lot cheaper than incarceration. Building a prison costs $70,000 per bed, whereas home-arrest equipment costs about $5,000 per inmate. Operating a prison costs $60 per inmate per day, whereas the cost of supervising home arrest is about $13 per day. What's more, an inmate under house arrest can work during the day, earning the money to cover the cost of his own supervision. The truth is that electronic monitoring demands so much responsibility that some convicted criminals beg judges to send them to prison instead! They know that in prison they will rarely be required to serve their whole sentence. They know they can get away with refusing to participate in drug rehabilitation or education programs. But when offenders are placed under house arrest, they're usually required to work or attend school and to participate in drug treatment programs. So if we want to "get tough on crime," the answer may not always be just locking more people up. For nonviolent offenders, alternative sentencing often imposes tougher punishment and greater accountability than sending them to prison. And that should be real goal: not just to get criminals off the streets but to hold them responsible for their actions. So why not write your state legislators and urge them to consider alternative sentencing. It's time to recognize that a huge edifice of concrete and barbed wire may be less effective than a slender metal bracelet.  


Chuck Colson


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