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Electronic Monitoring of Offenders: An Ethical Review


This paper considers electronic monitoring (EM) a promising alternative to imprisonment as a criminal sanction for a series of criminal offenses. However, little has been said about EM from an ethical perspective. To evaluate EM from an ethical perspective, six initial ethical challenges are addressed and discussed. It is argued that since EM is developing as a technology and a punitive means, it is urgent to discuss its ethical implications and incorporate moral values into its design and development.

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  1. The first EM programs were created in Florida and New Mexico in the early 1980s. The idea of EM originated from a Spiderman comic in the 1960s (Payne and Gainey 2000; Lyon 1994; Nellis 2006; Gable 2007). More importantly the need for alternative forms of punishment became evident due to increasing prison populations that resulted in overcrowding. This increased prison population was largely due to shifts in public opinion and the political arena; these called for more severe responses to crime, thereby leading to more reliance on incarceration. Alternative methods to punish less serious offenders were therefore needed (Payne and Gainey 2000, 94).

  2. During the sentence, the offender is not allowed to use either drugs or alcohol and unannounced home visits are made to ensure that rules are being abided by (Kriminalvården 2013).

  3. Other possible crime-preventing effects are deterrence and rehabilitative effects. I discuss these effects in other sections of this paper.

  4. I am thankful to an anonymous reviewer who indicated this potential problem.

  5. In fact, the potential intrusive nature of EM was recognized by Judge Love who is said to have expressed Orwellian worries regarding this technology (Lyon 1994).

  6. For an informative discussion on the concept of legal punishment, see Boonin (2008).

  7. It is important to emphasize that the unfair advantages that the offender enjoys must not to be identified with the fruits of his offense. What is referred to as unfair advantage is that the offender has not accepted the burdens of self-restraint assumed by those who obey the law, and hence enjoyed the freedom from such constrains that others have not (Boonin 2008).

  8. Boonin (2008) also discusses the possibility of defending a retributivistic theory of punishment based on a general theory of moral rights; according to this theory, criminal wrongdoing leads to right-forfeiture. Boonin refers to this view as forfeiture-based retributivism. However, it is doubtful whether the notion of right forfeiture in the theory of punishment should at all be labeled as a form of retributivism. By contrast, proponents of the forfeiture view can argue that it is compatible with various theories of punishment including consequentialism, retributivism, and moral educational theories (e.g. Morris 1991).

  9. Similar objections were raised against those who emphasized reform and re-education of offenders during the nineteenth century, such as James Mill (Ball 2010). Skeptics were then often sharing the consequentialistic approach but they emphasized the need to make punishment a general deterrent by example (Hart 2008, 165).


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A version of this paper was presented at the 4th Tübingen Graduate Conference in Practical Philosophy: Is Punishment Immoral? I would like to thank the participants at this conference for their many valuable and critical comments. I also express my gratitude to Till Grüne-Yanoff and Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist for their valuable comments and feedback on earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks also an anonymous reviewer.

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Correspondence to William Bülow.

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Bülow, W. Electronic Monitoring of Offenders: An Ethical Review. Sci Eng Ethics 20, 505–518 (2014).

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  • Criminal justice ethics
  • Electronic monitoring
  • Legal punishment
  • Privacy
  • Philosophy of punishment
  • Value-sensitive design