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Beyond the Bars: A New Model of "Virtual Incarceration" for Low-Risk Offenders


On May 23, 2011, state corrections officials in Sacramento awoke to news of a landmark US Supreme Court ruling ordering the California Department of Corrections to take immediate steps either to release 33,000 prisoners or build new prisons.

This decision in Brown v. Plata came after the justices deemed that crowded conditions in many of the state’s 33 prison facilities violated the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. In one prison unit, for example, up to 200 prisoners were stacked on makeshift cots in a gymnasium never designed to house them, and in another, one toilet served more than 50 men.

With limited financing to build new facilities, the state was forced to begin releasing 33,000 low-level offenders back into the community with little to no transitional support. Californians were ill prepared to deal with the onslaught of newly released offenders, and some citizens feared for their safety.3

California is not alone in facing high prison costs and overcrowding. States across the nation are beginning to realize that incarceration, while perhaps the safest solution for dangerous and violent offenders, may not be the best option for everyone in the system, particularly nonviolent criminals.

Is there another way? What if states could de-emphasize brick-and-mortar incarceration in favor of a more innovative virtual system for low-risk and nonviolent offenders?

Such systems are possible and are being introduced with positive reviews throughout the nation. By combining cutting-edge technologies with cognitive restructuring techniques, corrections departments can introduce effective new control mechanisms for select offenders that save money and improve outcomes.

In this report, we will examine these new models and how they work. We will also highlight criminal justice reform efforts—“pockets of progress”—already working across the country, and describe how their principles can be integrated into a new model and even applied to other areas of government.

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