The use of electronic monitoring to track offenders in Australia has increased by 150 percent since 2016, while researchers express concerns that technology is “turning the community into a prison.”
Used as a condition of bail, parole or as part of a suspended prison sentence, electronic monitoring — using wrist or ankle bracelets that can track everything from location to blood alcohol levels — has been hailed by Australian state governments and corrective services as a more effective way to manage growing prison populations.
Yet, as the number of offenders placed on electronic monitoring devices grows, there is still no consensus on whether they work.
In June, after a gunman in Darwin killed four people while wearing a GPS bracelet, the Northern Territory police chief ordered a review into offenders tracked by electronic monitoring as a condition of their parole.
Data collected by Dr Marietta Martinovic, an expert in electronic monitoring at RMIT University in Melbourne puts the number of offenders being electronically monitored at 2,500 — a 150 percent increase in the past three years.
New South Wales Corrective Services reported 157 offenders subject to some form of electronic surveillance since September last year, when new sentencing reforms made it easier for courts to add conditions such as electronic monitoring to corrections orders.
The most recent New South Wales budget has set aside US$2 million toward a new GPS monitoring system that would track high-risk offenders.
In Queensland more than 700 people have been fitted with electronic monitors since they began tracking parolees in 2017.
Victoria has promised to roll out electronic monitoring for offenders as young as 16.
In the Northern Territory, more than US$4 million was set aside in 2016 for the expansion of their electronic monitoring program in an attempt to reduce the growing rate of juvenile detention.
“There is certainly merit in looking for alternatives to incarceration,” said Marty Aust, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory. “We want to see as many people who can be released on parole, released on parole.”
However, Aust said the important issue is what — and who — monitoring is used for.
“If a youth offender was subject to electronic monitoring because police wanted to use it as a tool for investigating offenses they think they will commit in the future, obviously, one would question the legitimacy of electronic monitoring for that person in the first place,” Aust said.
Others are concerned that the use of tracking devices is a way to widen the net of law enforcement that disproportionately targets Aborigines.
The founder of the police accountability project at the University of New South Wales, Tamar Hopkins, said there is no evidence that electronic monitoring reduces reoffending or provides a safe and suitable alternative to incarceration.
“There is an incredible stigma around the actual wearing of the bracelet,” Hopkins said.
“The social isolation that comes with being electronically monitored can lead to enhanced feelings of PTSD and potential suicide risk,” Hopkins said.
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