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From B.F. Skinner to Spiderman to Martha Stewart: The Past, Present and Future of Electronic Monitoring of Offenders

NCJ Number
Journal of Offender Rehabilitation Volume: 46 Issue: 3/4 Dated: 2008 Pages: 101-118
William D. Burrell; Robert S. Gable
Date Published
8 pages
This article reviews the history of electronic monitoring (EM), summarizes contemporary research regarding the impact of EM technology on recidivism rates, and suggests how EM can be used more effectively as a tool in the process of offender rehabilitation.
First popularized in the 1980s, EM was used extensively as an alternative to incarceration in jail or prison and as an adjunct to traditional probation or parole supervision. Psychologist B.F. Skinner (1969) emphasized that social behavior is shaped and maintained by the specific nature and timing of consequences. EM initially improved the chances of immediately detecting and administering consequences of violations of the conditions of community supervision, thus providing conditions for changing criminal behaviors and reinforcing normative behaviors. The initial promotion of EM was aided by a New Mexico State district judge (Jack Love) in 1983, who saw a Spiderman cartoon in which the villain clamped a bracelet-style "radar device" on Spiderman in order to track his movements. This launched the judge on a campaign to sell his idea of EM to several technology companies, which led to Michael Goss establishing the National Incarceration Monitoring and Control Services; it produced the first cigarette-pack-size transmitter units to be strapped to an ankle. The primary use of EM has since evolved from being an adjunct for the rehabilitation of low-risk probationers to a surveillance system for enforcing curfew and house-arrest requirements, as demonstrated in its use with Martha Stewart after her release from prison. There are no replicated, well-designed studies which show that monitoring alone reduces recidivism after monitoring ends. The authors suggest that the goal of long-term public safety will be most likely achieved if the unique technical capabilities of electronic monitoring are used in combination with interventions based on social learning theory. 1 table and 66 references