Sunday, April 29, 2007

Advisory Council on Technocorrections


Your state faces rising correctional costs as far as the eye can see. These rising costs not only drain taxpayer dollars from communities and their schools, health care, transportation, and economic development. They also take resources away from other important areas of criminal justice—juvenile justice, mental health, law enforcement, jails, prosecution, and courts. If those correctional costs could be controlled or, better, reduced through effective non-incarceration techniques, state taxpayers might receive more relief without jeopardizing public safety or potential victims.

As you look at the rising costs, it is clear that much of the increase comes from substance abuse offenders, directly and indirectly. Other long-term costs come from sex and/or violent offenders receiving extended prison terms. As policymakers continue to add more years to sentences in order to deter these offenders, they age and subsequently require more expenditure for health and other reasons. If you could find non-incarcerative ways to control their offending at less expense, you would free up bedspace and reduce costs without causing more crime and victims.

In your door walks a salesperson, a different kind of salesperson selling a different kind of product, a more technological product than has been offered before. Maybe it’s improved surveillance technology, enabling you to know and stop offenders from leaving house arrest, work release, or GPS monitoring the instant they try. Maybe it’s new pharmaceuticals that bind to cell receptors in the offender’s brain or modify them to stop cravings for alcohol or drugs or to weaken impulsive behavior. Maybe it’s a bioengineered product using viruses to carry and insert a new segment of DNA that will change those brain cell receptors genetically. Maybe it’s a mechanism to control certain parts of the brain to prevent violent outbursts, sexual needs, or compulsive risk-taking.

Immediately you think, wait, this sounds too new and too much like science fiction. It smacks of 1984, Brave New World, or “Minority Report.” We can’t do these things to people. Ah, the salesperson says with a smile, but you can deprive a person of freedom for decades at enormous costs to other needs that the good people of your state face. And besides, the salesperson finishes, leaning forward with that smile, you’re already doing it to a great extent. What’s a little more? It will cost you so much less than prison beds, and the once-were offenders will be in the community paying taxes, keeping that community and their families together, and living constructive, not destructive, lives. The salesperson leans back and waits for your answer.

What do you say?

As you know from our discussions here, this all deals with what Tony Fabelo in his 2000 NIJ paper called "technocorrections," a clarion call for attention to the rapidly emerging technologies and perspectives emphasizing surveillance, pharmaceuticals, and bioengineering to master our even more rapidly emerging correctional population crises. His work needs to be read in its entirety to appreciate his expertise and prescience on this, but here we will just focus on his concluding recommendations.

Fabelo ended his wake-up with a call for “values-based technocorrections.” “There needs to be a consensus about a values framework for promoting appropriate technocorrections,” he said. And he called for three initial steps in its development:

· Sponsoring an initiative to identify emerging technologies, indicate how they might be applied to corrections, and provide scenarios for applying them, with timelines of their marketability.
· Organizing private and public symposiums to develop scenarios of how best to apply the technologies, identifying and weighing the anticipated benefits and disadvantages of each technology profiled.
· Developing model policies, for consideration by State policymakers, that minimize the potential threats in applying the new technologies in a correctional setting.

However, despite the clear importance of the topic and a later plenary session on it at a conference of the National Association of Sentencing Commissions, as technocorrections continues to advance, it is clear that none of Fabelo’s questions or concerns has been mitigated. If anything, they have been greatly enhanced. So, the question becomes, in the face of the promises and dangers of technocorrections, what can be done?

One of the problems with Fabelo’s call for action, the development of awareness and networking of public and private entities around the need for planning and structuring, was that he proposed no mechanism to form and coordinate this response. He may have thought sentencing commissions would take up the cause. In theory, these bodies could address the issue, but, for reasons of sunk costs and operating procedures, political balancing and legislative prescriptions, that is not likely to happen. Indeed, the proof is that it hasn’t happened in the years hence.

That does not mean that Fabelo’s recommendations and action plan are doomed. It just means that states need to create specific structures for their development and implementation. They need to create councils devoted specifically to technocorrections that can then provide research, information, guidance, education, and warnings to policymakers as the technologies expand and colonize our correctional policies and operations.

What would, say, an “Advisory Council on Technocorrections” (ACT) look like? Here’s one possibility.

Since the issues associated with technocorrections involve biotechnology applied to corrections of adults and juveniles, ACT should be composed not only of the state directors of corrections, probation, parole, and juvenile justice, but also of health, mental health, and substance abuse treatment, as they are configured in the individual states. ACT could operate out of the governor’s office, a department of administration or corrections, or a legislative bureau. To support these busy directors, ACT would also oversee a support committee made of research, treatment, and administrative representatives of each state department and of designated university specialists in science and engineering. This latter body would use their representatives’ support staff to produce each year a draft report on use, costs, and the near future of technocorrections as well as making recommendations for state action. ACT would then consider and approve its version of this report for an Annual Report and Recommendations to the governor and the legislature.

What would ACT’s focus and jurisdiction be? While not forgoing discretion to expand as necessary as technology evolves, ACT would be required to address at least five areas each year: ethics, monitoring, implementation, research, and education. Ethics would include development of standards for adoption and practice of any technocorrections sanctions or treatments as well as preparation of complaint and challenge mechanisms. Monitoring would include oversight, program review, and evaluations of any ongoing technocorrections practices as well as analysis of the fiscal and social impact of proposed legislation and regulations. Implementation would include planning and coordination within and across state and local agencies as well as liaison with private organizations and the federal government to resolve jurisdictional and liability disputes.

Research would include provision and oversight of grant funding to appropriate bodies to test, pilot, and review technocorrections activities in the particular state as well as holding annual research conferences and sponsoring peer-reviewed journal articles and books on technocorrections applications and problems. Education would include development of materials, workshops, and counsel to assist public knowledge and consideration of technocorrections as well as ensuring adequate comprehension of trial practitioners and of policymakers of the advantages and disadvantages of specific technocorrections alternatives as well as technocorrections generally.

Each ACT annual report would detail its activities and outcomes in these five areas and in others that might arise. From its work, the governor and the legislature would each year receive a blueprint to guide both the cost-effective and the ethical use of technocorrections in their state for the long-term future. From that, the policymakers could shape needed legislation to maximize the cost-effective public safety benefits that could be obtained in the balance with protection of traditional and dear American civil liberties.

Let's review.

Costs of corrections have climbed consistently for three decades and will climb for most states even more as releases are delayed and aging offenders entail higher expenses in the future, even if prison and probation intake level off. The latter is not reliable cost-reducer historically. Every dollar going to corrections is a dollar unavailable to other vital areas of criminal justice and public safety and to the community building and maintenance services that deny growth to more crime. States are already considering alternatives to traditional corrections in order to slow their rising costs, and many of their decisions involve the front edge of a growing use of technocorrections—surveillance, pharmaceuticals, and bioengineering.

Technocorrections has and will have advocates seeking the lucrative future it promises. If substance abusing offenders, or violent offenders, or sexual assaulters of children can be stopped or limited without incarceration and with less cost daily, then the salespeople will have pitches too attractive to ignore. The prospect of removing the high percentages of inmates (and their expenses) in every state who can be subjected to technocorrections may cause policymakers to adopt these new alternatives without adequate planning or needed deliberation of the possibly negative results.

Fears of immediate and relatively known dangers can drive the public and their representatives to adopt policies that, in hindsight, threaten individual freedom and American values in the name of short-term security. To prevent that, a few observers have called for action now to plot out the costs and benefits clearly and to think through decisions intelligently and rationally in advance. One means to accomplish that would be to create a state council of the relevant department heads, backed by research, treatment, and management specialists in their agencies, to develop, coordinate, and disseminate information and materials to guide policymakers and practitioners along the technocorrectional journey on which they have already embarked, unguided.

With solid, defensible data and information, policymakers and practitioners can direct appropriate and cost-effective technocorrectional alternatives to offenders who will then be removed from our prison cells and probation caseloads. They will be able to do this well aware of the pitfalls and dangers that might accompany those alternatives or others better left unchosen. The end product will not be the unplanned and uncoordinated adoption of these approaches, as is beginning to occur. The end product will be the careful and thoughtful application of sanctions and treatments that will maximize both public safety and use of public dollars.

Surely this is worth more active discussion, planning, and implementation than we've managed to give Fabelo's prophetic call to this point.

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