Richard Stapleton Reflects on Decades of  Working with Michigan’s Electronic Monitoring Program

map of michigan[Here I present the highlights of my July 2013 interview with Richard Stapleton. Mr. Stapleton worked for the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) for 34 years, retiring in 2011. He served as the MDOC’s Administrator for Legal Affairs and  was deeply involved in the state’s electronic monitoring program. He took  part in policy development and was a member of a legislative Task Force on monitoring in 2010. His comments give us a unique perspective on how electronic monitoring has become increasingly punitive and less frequently implemented as an “alternative to incarceration.”]

Michigan has one of the largest and most longstanding electronic monitoring (EM) programs in the country.  The MDOC began using monitoring in the mid-1980s. Since then the program has grown steadily. According to MDOC figures, there were 5,117 people in Michigan on electronic monitoring as of April 1, 2013. 79% of these were on parole.

 During our conversation, Stapleton highlighted the origins of monitoring as a vehicle targeted at “community status prisoners,” people who had not completed their sentence and were released into the community to do the rest of their time.  In those days, when they finished their sentence, they went off EM and transferred to normal parole without monitoring. Stapleton believes electronic monitoring can be effective in such circumstances.  He argues that it should serve primarily as an “alternative to incarceration.”  Compared to incarceration he says that “a year on the tether at home is great for the family, great for the community, great for the offender.”

Before GPS technology became available in the late 1990s, everyone was on Radio Frequency (RF). A radio frequency device does not track a person’s precise location but only reveals whether they are in the place designated as their base, typically their house.  In that era, Stapleton recalls that RF regimes were largely organized around a curfew which mandated that a person stay in the house during night time hours, from “something like 11 6 a.m.” The rest of the time, people were free to work, visit friends, or go shopping.

However, three important things happened to shift the parameters of electronic monitoring. First, the rise of GPS allowed not only real time tracking but also the ability to program “exclusion zones” into a person’s monitor.  With this feature, if the individual enters a prohibited zone, an alarm on their monitor will sound and their parole agent will be alerted. Second, according to Stapleton, around 2000 Michigan abandoned the idea of “community status” in favor of truth in sentencing. Under truth in sentencing  those who were incarcerated had to do all of their time in prison.  Serving  part of their time outside the walls was no longer possible. Third, in 2006 Michigan passed a law requiring lifetime monitoring for people with certain types of sex offenses.

These three factors, combined with an increased emphasis on national security, led to a major transformation in the operation of electronic monitoring. In the absence of community status, monitoring largely became a condition of parole.

Stapleton argues that this was a step backwards, that adding a monitor for people released from prison on parole acts as “another burdensome condition of extending their incarceration.”  He contends this shift led to a situation where Michigan has “lost track of what parole really was…that you have done your time.”  With the new regimes of EM he fears that the reality is “the more conditions you impose, the more violations you create.” He bemoans the situation that a “guy on parole has to call his parole agent to go and buy a pack of cigarettes.”  He also worries that a lack of clear cut rules and policies leaves those on parole with EM “at the whim of their agent.”

Stapleton mentioned a number of other concerns about present day EM.  He claimed the capacity of EM to prevent crime is exaggerated.  It doesn’t “keep you out of trouble” he says, but only becomes useful  “after the fact,” if police want “to prove the guy was in the area.”

In addition, Stapleton takes issue with comprehensive monitoring of people with sex offense histories, labeling the tethering of “every sex offender” a “waste of money” resulting from “legislative over-reaction.”  He suspects these laws were not simply an organic reaction to a crime problem. Rather he points out that service providers were involved in lobbying for changes to the laws¸ using hysteria over high profile sex crimes as an opportunity to expand their market.  While Michigan administers the EM program through state channels and its own Electronic Monitoring Center, BI Incorporated, the nation’s largest EM service provider, has garnered a major share of contracts with the state to provide the  technology.  BI is a fully-owned subsidiary of private corrections firm the GEO Group.

As for the future of monitoring, Stapleton maintains there is “room for expansion of the use” of EM “by putting it in the category of incarceration” and getting “around the guidelines.” He remains convinced that there “are lots of men trustworthy enough to be locked up out here” and EM is the ideal vehicle to make this happen. However, for the moment, the MDOC appears to have taken a different path.