From Decarceration to E-Carceration

Posted: 14 May 2019 Last revised: 4 Aug 2019

See all articles by Chaz Arnett

Chaz Arnett

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law

Date Written: May 14, 2019


Each year, millions of Americans experience criminal justice surveillance through electronic monitors that strap onto their ankles. These devices have fundamentally altered our understanding of incarceration, punishment, and the extent of the carceral state, as they are increasingly offered as moderate penal sanctions and viable solutions to the problem of mass incarceration. They purportedly enable decarceration, albeit with enhanced surveillance in the community as the compromise. Proponents of the devices tout the public safety and cost benefits while stressing the importance of depopulating prisons and returning individuals to their communities. In recent years, an oppositional movement has developed, focused on highlighting the social harms of electronic monitoring as part of a burgeoning e-carceration regime, where digital prisons arise, not as substitutes to brick and mortar buildings, but as net-widening correctional strategy operationalized to work in tandem. This paper examines this debate on the effectiveness of electronic anklet monitors and proposes a new framework, centered on social marginalization, for evaluating their use. It argues that the current scholarly debate on the use of electronic ankle monitors is limited because it fails to consider the potential harm of social marginalization, particularly for historically subordinated groups subjected to this form of surveillance. It uses system avoidance theory to elucidate the argument that intensive criminal justice surveillance has the counterproductive effect of causing those subjected to surveillance to avoid institutions necessary for adequate reintegration and reduction in recidivism. It offers a theory of the carceral state as malleable, extending beyond prison walls, expanding our carceral reality, and placing great strains on privacy, liberty, and democratic participation. Ultimately, it stresses that a move from decarceration to e-carceration, or from mass incarceration to mass surveillance, will likely fail to the resolve, and may exacerbate, one of the greatest harms of mass incarceration: the maintenance of social stratification. Thus, adequately addressing this challenge will demand a more robust and transformative approach to criminal justice reform that shifts a punitive framework to a rehabilitative one focused on proven methods of increasing defendant’s and former offender’s connection to their community and civic life, such as employment assistance programming, technical and entrepreneurial skill development, supportive housing options, and mental health services.

Keywords: mass incarceration, electronic monitoring, criminal law, criminal procedure, surveillance, criminal justice, e-carceration, privacy, reentry, law and technology, corrections, punishment, sentencing, pretrial, probation, parole, bail, criminal justice reform, big data, data privacy, policing

Suggested Citation

Arnett, Chaz, From Decarceration to E-Carceration (May 14, 2019). Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 41, No. 2, 2019. Available at SSRN:

Chaz Arnett (Contact Author)

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law ( email )


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