Electronic anklet trial a 'disaster'

A corrections expert says a pilot project to outfit parolees with electronic anklets in hopes of tracking them and deterring crimes has been a costly failure.

A federal pilot project to outfit parolees with electronic anklets in hopes of keeping track of them and deterring further crimes has been a costly failure, according to a corrections expert.

"The whole fact is that the program was an unmitigated disaster," said Paul Gendreau, a professor emeritus at the University of New Brunswick who is known internationally for his research in corrections and electronic monitoring.

Nearly two years ago, then public safety minister Stockwell Day announced the pilot project with great fanfare as part of the Conservative government's tough-on-crime stance.

Read the full report on the electronic monitoring pilot project

But an internal review of the program, obtained by CBC News, found that it was plagued by technical malfunctions with the anklet's global positioning system and showed little proof of the device's effectiveness.

"The bottom line is whether these kinds of programs reduce criminal behaviour, and this one didn't," Gendreau said.

The yearlong pilot, which began in September 2008 and cost $856,000, tracked 46 Ontario parolees. All were volunteers.

In an interview for CBC's Power and Politics, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews underscored that the anklets were used in a pilot project only and that "the problem was one of technology."

"If the technology can be improved and the safety of Canadians can be improved through this program, we'll consider ... continuing that," Toews said.

False alarms

The Correctional Service of Canada review of its own program found the technology was faulty and often failed to pinpoint a parolee's whereabouts accurately.

For example, there was only one valid electronic anklet alert out of 19 where a parolee had actually tampered with his anklet strap. Most of the false alarms were due to equipment sensitivity and hardware or software issues. About one-third, or six cases, were caused by accidental jarring at work or during other activities.

And all seven alerts that parolees had tampered with the device itself turned out to be false.

Another problem was so-called GPS "drift," when the monitoring map inaccurately identified the parolee's location by a difference of up to 200 metres, requiring a program reset to sync it back up.

Parolees also complained of an overwhelming number of phone calls about technical issues, such as telling them to charge their batteries to keep the device from emitting alerts and recalibrating the GPS to fix drifting. At least one parolee received more than 30 calls in a month.

Gendreau says the program was poorly orchestrated, contained too small a sample size, didn't properly collect data, and experienced too many technological breakdowns.

"This [electronic monitoring] project that they ran was so expensive that they would have been better off just to keep people locked up in jail," said Gendreau.

Keeping an offender in a medium-security facility costs $239 a day, or $87,500 a year, while housing them in a community correctional centre costs $65,656 annually.

Project under review

The Correctional Service of Canada report acknowledged the pilot project was too small to draw conclusions on the usefulness of the program, with 46 volunteer parolees participating, and only nine of them agreeing to evaluate the program at the end.

It also admitted that the electronic monitoring anklets are best suited to monitoring those with curfews.

History of electronic monitoring:

  • 1960s: American psychologist Dr. Robert Schweitzgebel comes up with the idea of electronic monitoring for offenders.
  • 1980s: The U.S. introduces the system. 
  • 1987: B.C. becomes the first Canadian province to use it.
  • 1990s: The U.S. increases use of it to reduce the rising prison population. It is used for home detention, probation, parole, juvenile detention and bail.
  • Mid-1990s: Use of electronic monitoring rises in Europe, especially in Sweden and the Netherlands.

"The benefits associated with electronic monitoring may be minimal for offenders with a history of substance abuse, criminal associates and violent offences," the report states.

The assessment found that parolees complained of the size, comfort and visibility of the electronic anklets, and didn't think it made them more accountable.

British Columbia was the first province in Canada to introduce electronic monitoring in 1987 and was later joined by Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nova Scotia.

In the United States, electronic bracelets are widely used and aimed primarily at those who pose the greatest risk to the public, including sex offenders.

The report states that the Canadian government expects to spend about $1 million a year over the next four years to roll out the program across the country.

A Correctional Service of Canada spokesperson said there are currently 25 Ontario offenders being monitored under the pilot program. The agency says the whole project is under review.

With files from CBC's Maureen Brosnahan