The Deterrent Effects of Electronic Monitoring on Sex Offenders


Electronic monitoring has become widely used across all fifty United States. Policy makers have suggested several reasons for the widespread implementation of such devices, including alternatives to sentencing, prison overcrowding issues, part of parole stipulations for moderate to high-risk offenders, and in some cases of pre-trial release. In more recent years, the use of electronic monitoring has become part of the public-safety repertoire, where policy makers and the public both insist on having higher levels of surveillance on individuals who might pose the greatest risk to the public upon release from prison, namely, sexual offenders.

Electronic monitoring technology first emerged in the mid-1980s as a way to accomplish several goals: reducing prison populations, punishing and supervising offenders, and rehabilitation efforts (DeMichele et al., 2009). The first states to begin using electronic monitoring technologies were Florida and New Mexico, but eventually all fifty states adopted some form of electronic monitoring systems. In the early 2000s, electronic monitoring technologies were also being tested and used in various parts of Europe (Beyens & Roosen, 2013). Initially, electronic monitoring devices were proposed for low risk offenders, DUI cases, and for pre-trial release offenders; however, community corrections officials and policy makers began pushing for further legislation. Thus, the Adam Walsh Act of 2006 states that all individuals convicted of a sex offense are to be supervised with electronic monitors (DeMichele et al., 2009).

From a theoretical perspective, electronic monitoring, especially global positioning systems (GPS), is expected to prevent general acts of crime through individual and general deterrence. If an offender does not want to go back to prison or receive a technical violation with additional stipulations, offenders will have to follow the strict guidelines of having a monitor on. GPS monitoring is hypothesized to have an even greater deterrent effect than radio frequency (RF) electronic monitors because the offender’s location can be identified at all times. For example, the justice system would be able to see if a sex offender went to an elementary school or another location they are not permitted to be. Thus, an individual would have more of a reason to abide by the policies.

Topic introduction:

The key question of interest is: how does electronic monitoring deter sex offenders? Are there differences in deterrence based on the type of electronic monitor that us being used, such as radio frequency or global positioning systems technologies? The policy of electronic monitoring for sex offenders is a growing issue in community corrections due to the increasingly large number of stipulations placed on sex offenders once they are released from prison and rejoin communities. The policy initiatives of electronic monitoring should decrease recidivism rates for sex offenders, particularly with the use of GPS electronic monitoring, as explained by the theory of specific deterrence.

The Development of Electronic Monitoring


            The correctional goal of using any type of electronic monitoring device is to lower jail and prison populations, provide extra surveillance on prior offenders who are in the community, and reduce crime. There are two main types of electronic monitors currently in use, radio frequency (RF) and global positioning systems (GPS) (Beyens & Roosen, 2013; DeMichele et al., 2009; Kilgore, 2012; Padgett et al., 2006; Wroblewski, 2008). The RF monitors are installed in an offender’s home. From there, a computer receives signals from the transmitter connected to the offender’s home phone line, which receives signals from an ankle monitor that is worn at all times. The monitor indicates when an offender is at home, which varies depending on the pre-approved movement times (Bottos, 2008; Martinovic, 2002; Padgett et al., 2006; Renzema & Mayo-Wilson, 2005; Roman et al., 2012). GPS systems allow satellite tracking of movement at all times. An offender must carry a GPS signal receiver, which is a portable tracking device, and a cellular phone that relays information to a monitoring agency (Padgett et al., 2006; Renzema & Mayo-Wilson, 2005; Roman et al, 2012). The monitoring agency can be notified in advance of areas and locations an offender is prohibited to go, such as schools, near a victim’s home, and day care centers (Payne & DeMichele, 2011). Oftentimes, these are called inclusion areas- where an offender can go- and exclusion areas- where an offender cannot go (Armstrong & Freeman, 2011; Renzema & Mayo-Wilson, 2005; Button et al., 2009). Since GPS systems can monitor offender’s locations at any point they are progressively being used for high-risk offenders, such as individuals convicted of sex offenses (Armstrong & Freeman, 2011; Finn & Muirhead-Steves, 2006; Renzema & Mayo-Wilson, 2005).

Theoretical support for Electronic Monitoring


            The theoretical support for electronic monitoring policies stems from deterrence theory, specific and general. General deterrence specifically targets how legal punishments affect the general public, or potential offenders; whereas, specific deterrence refers to the effect that punishments have on individuals who have already received sanctions and punishments, or, previously punished offenders (Stafford & Warr, 1993). Likewise, Nagin (1978) defines general deterrence as the “imposition of sanctions on one person [to] demonstrate to the rest of the public the expected costs of a criminal act, and thereby discourage criminal behavior in the general population” (p.96); while individuals who are deterred by the experience of punishment is an outcome of specific deterrence. Therefore, for sex offenders in the community, GPS electronic monitoring would be more of a specific deterrence. From a theoretical standpoint, specific deterrence efforts are utilized since the goal of such monitoring is to reduce the likelihood that the offender will commit another crime, sexual or otherwise, as opposed to committing a crime in the first place.

Specific deterrence requires a sense of legitimacy of the sanctions imposed and the offender’s perception of those sanctions. Other individuals with similar crimes must experience similar certainty and severity of punishment in order for the offender to perceive the sanction to be legitimate and thus deter the individual from further crime (Stafford & Warr, 1993), such as the difference between RF and GPS monitoring devices. Padgett, Bales, and Blomberg (2006), however, found that individuals in the community who are monitored with either type of device have significantly lower levels of recidivism, technical violations, and absconding rates than individuals who did not have an electronic monitoring device.

Taking the deterrent perspective one step further, Meloy (2005) suggests incorporating rational choice theory into the recidivism risk analysis on sex offenders, arguing that offenders are rational in their decision making, which comes from weighing the cost and benefits of committing a crime. The argument follows that offenders will make a rational decision based on these risks and gains that will determine their choice to follow or break the law. For sex offenders, if an individual decides not to commit a new sex crime, the theory would argue that they have internally calculated that the penalty of committing such an act would outweigh the potential pleasurable gain from such act. Accordingly, the two forms of deterrence, specific and general, affect sex offender’s behavior in differing ways. General deterrence is aimed at potential sex offenders and is decidedly successful when would-be sex offenders are deterred from committing a sexual crime after they have vicariously seen and experienced what has happened to other similar offenders. Specific deterrence policies, on the other hand, target convicted offenders. These policies are successful if they deter the offender from committing any future sexual crimes (Meloy, 2005). Consequently, individuals who have already been convicted of a sexual offense would arguably be able to weigh the cost and benefit of repeating said behavior more appropriately than those who have never experienced the repercussions of a sex offense conviction. Therefore, specific deterrent policies have thus established electronic monitoring systems as a tool for reducing reoffending by sex offenders through increasing the cost of committing a new offense.

Upon reentry into communities, offenders who are placed on electronic monitors have to receive approved movement from their parole officer for work, school, drug treatment, and other activities (Brown et al., 2007; Kilgore, 2012; Petersilia, 2003). In order to be approved for such times or request additional movement, an offender must contact a call center that is employed by the electronic monitoring firm and put in a request. Thus, offenders are forced to plan activities in advance and are unable to act impulsively, having higher deterrent effects than offenders who are not on electronic monitors (Kilgore, 2012). For sex offenders with GPS monitors, specifically, where agencies can track exact locations at all times, this would greatly deter the likelihood of an offender being in an exclusion area, such as in close proximity to a school, park, day care center, or school bus stop (Farkas & Miller, 2007) because the likelihood of receiving a parole violation would be dramatically higher (Burchfield & Mingus, 2008; Farkas & Miller, 2007). Two studies examining the likelihood of recidivism for high-risk sex offenders on electronic monitors both conclude that for individuals who do not have electronic monitors, there is a thirty-eight percent and thirty-one percent chance of failure (Gies et al., 2012; Bales, 2010).

For offenders being released into communities from prison, electronic monitoring in general has deterrent effects, however, different studies posit different rates of reduced recidivism. For example, a study testing the costs and benefits of electronic monitoring in the Washington, D.C. area concludes that on average, the use of electronic monitoring on offenders reduces rearrest by twenty-four percent for individuals who participate in the program (Roman et al., 2012). In Argentina, in a preliminary study on the deterrent effects of electronic monitoring, the recidivism rate of those without electronic monitors was twenty-two percent, while those with electronic monitors was only thirteen percent (Di Tella, 2010). Thus, the increased surveillance effect of using electronic monitors in different settings on a multitude of offenders is promising for higher rates of deterrence. Likewise, for offenders with a GPS monitor, having exclusion zones is seen to decrease re-offending because opportunities to commit another crime are lower and individuals do not want to be caught in the wrong place (Roman et al., 2012).

Electronic monitoring of sex offenders, especially using GPS systems, is also promising from a victim’s perspective. The GPS device tracks an offender’s movements in real time and issues a warning to authorities or potential victims if the offender is near a school or the victim’s residency (Roman et al., 2012). Thus, some studies indicate that sex offenders with electronic monitoring devices have low rates of recidivism: 5.3% for a new crime, and only 1.3% recidivism rates for a new sex crime (Langan et al., 2003).

In total, there are more than five million offenders under some form of community supervision in the United States (Bulman, 2011). The cost-benefit analysis of electronic monitoring on offenders is thus seen as an effective means to deter would-be recidivists at a lower cost to city, state, and federal agencies compared to the incapacitating efforts of incarceration (Dodgson et al., 2001; Mainprize, 1992; Roman et al., 2012). In a recent Florida study, the risk of failure during community supervision declined by thirty-one percent compared to a group of medium and high-risk offenders who were not on electronic monitors (Bulman, 2011). Electronic monitors were also seen as having a greater effect at reducing sex, property, and drug offenses (Finn & Muirhead-Steves, 2002; Padgett et al., 2006), while GPS monitoring had most of an effect at reducing recidivism than RF systems (Bulman, 2011). Therefore, electronic monitoring is a less expensive alternative to re-incarcerating offenders that could help lower the costly reincarceration cycle that many offenders face.

Deterrence theory has formed many legislative policies in regards to sex offenders, such as involuntary civil commitment, sex offender registration, extended prison sentences, and in some areas a lifetime of parole (Meloy, 2005). Accordingly, from a theoretical standpoint, deterrence with electronic monitoring, especially GPS monitoring, is an effective method at reducing reoffending. The deterrent effect of the monitoring policies is only effective for individuals who have been through the criminal justice system and received punishment. Therefore, GPS monitoring of sex offenders has a specific deterrent effect, since sex offenders released into communities have already been incarcerated. A violation of the electronic monitoring stipulations has the potential to send an offender back to prison. Consequently, sex offenders with higher levels of surveillance and greater opportunities to break the electronic monitors will have a greater reason to abide by the stipulations and will be deterred from future crimes at higher rates.


Research, methods, data, and evaluation of electronic monitoring


            Several studies have tested the effectiveness of electronic monitoring on various types of offenders with mixed results. Renzema and Mayo-Wilson (2005) state that using electronic monitoring as a crime reduction tool is not supported by existing data. Bonta, Wallace-Capretta, and Rooney (2000), compared three electronic monitoring programs in Canada and found low evidence in reducing crime for both RF and GPS type monitoring systems. The authors state that electronic monitoring has more of a “net-widening” effect for corrections agencies and increases surveillance without changing criminal behaviors. However, the study did find that individuals on electronic monitors had better attitudes towards parole officers and higher program completion rates.

On the other hand, Finn and Muirhead-Steves (2002) assessed 128 high-risk individuals on parole with electronic monitors and compared the sample to 158 parolees who did not have electronic monitoring stipulations. The results indicated that electronic monitoring had a low effect on the likelihood of recidivism and crime reduction. However, the study did state that sex offenders who had electronic monitors had substantially longer times until future arrest and a lower probability that they would return to prison.

Overall, the literature does support that electronic monitoring devices, and especially GPS monitoring, is effective for deterring sex offenders from committing new sex offenses, but there are mixed results in relation to other types of offenders. The ample amount of mixed results could indicate validity or reliability in the study designs, a possible low sample size, or choice of offender population. Several issues, however, are raised regarding the use of electronic monitoring on sex offenders. First, there have been numerous legislative acts and policies that have been enacted over recent years that dramatically limits sex offenders in communities already: employment, housing, exclusion zones (DeMichele et al., 2009; Duwe et al., 2008). Following Jessica’s Law, some states, such as California and Missouri, are beginning to require that sex offenders wear electronic monitors indefinitely, which can become rather costly, especially when GPS monitors are used (Dante, 2012; Gies et al., 2012; Gies, 2016; Shekhter, 2011) There are also other sanctions that sex offenders must comply with at the same time as having an electronic monitor, including: substance abuse treatment, regular urinalysis tests, training, curfews, counseling and therapy, informing the community of sex offender registration, and restitution, which may reduce the necessity of utilizing an electronic monitor (DeMichele et al., 2009).

There are several unintended consequences from electronic monitoring policies in general. These can include a false sense of security among the community, having multiple sanctions on the same offender, net-widening of the criminal justice system, higher work-loads for parole officers, and isolation from the community for offenders, which lowers chances of reintegration and rehabilitation (Brown et al., 2007; DeMichele et al., 2009; Kruttschnitt et al., 2000). The electronic monitors can also lose signals, run out of battery life, might not work in buildings, tunnels, or other blocked areas, have general equipment failures, and issues with emergency responses (DeMichle et al, 2009).

In some instances, electronic monitors can be used as a reward for good institutional behavior while an offender is still incarcerated, or used as a good behavior mechanism for low-risk offenders (Kilgore, 2012). In many cases, though, electronic monitors are used for people on parole (Glaze & Bonczar, 2011) and individuals deemed high-risk, such as sex offenders, gang affiliates, and severely violent offenders (Finn & Muirhead-Steves, 2002; Kilgore, 2012). Though some literature indicates that electronic monitors are effective in reducing recidivism and re-offending of sex offenders, it is still questionable at this time. It may be the case that there are so many other stipulations in place for sex offenders that the electronic monitor does not have a significant deterrent effect, or such a low effect that the cost of utilizing electronic monitors is too high to substantiate. Similarly, it is well documented in the literature that sex offenders have the lowest rates of recidivism already (Doren, 1998). Additionally, others have argued that the only factors that are associated with a reduction in reoffending among sex offenders is stable employment and regular treatment (Brown et al., 2007), which is difficult for many sex offenders because of barriers on employment from being a sex offender and having an electronic monitor.

There is also the impact on the community that future literature needs to address. Public opinion regarding sex offenders is highly punitive, thus the dramatic increase in sanctions and restrictions. Future literature should address public opinion of having sex offenders in communities with GPS electronic monitors. If barriers to employment could be mitigated if sex offenders were allowed to acquire jobs while wearing an electronic monitor were eased, there may be a decrease in reoffending. Likewise, having the opportunity to have gainful employment could increase relations with family members because the offender would be able to contribute, provide, and take care of some aspects of family responsibilities. This would also impact community and offender relations, decreasing isolation and other hazardous consequences of strong punitive legislation and sanctions and potentially lower rates of recidivism. A comparative study of sex offenders from other western countries that examines deterrent effects of institutional and community corrections, along with offender reintegration, would be very beneficial.



            The purpose of the present paper is to assess the deterrent effects of electronic monitoring, specifically GPS monitoring of sex offenders. Results have been mixed when assessing the effects of RF and GPS electronic monitoring systems on different types of offenses. However, some scholars have found a greater deterrent potential for GPS monitoring of sex offenders. The greater effect may be due to other sanctions imposed on sex offenders and increasing legislative punitiveness, however, that remains questionably. Several studies have indicated that the rate of failure and rearrest for sex offenders with electronic monitors is significantly lower than comparable offenders without electronic monitors.

There may be other benefits to electronic monitors besides having a deterrent effect on sex offenders. Victims of sex offenses may feel a greater sense of security in knowing that the GPS device monitors the offender’s movement at all times. Additionally, the GPS monitoring device can send alerts to law enforcement, authorities, and victims if the offender goes into a zone that they are not authorized to be in, such as near the victim’s home, schools, and day care centers.

Electronic monitoring could also lower the financial burden on the criminal justice system. Depending on the security level of the facility, the cost of an inmate per year can vary from $17,000 to over $30,000. Electronic monitors have substantially lower cost rates, ranging from just over one dollar per diem for radio frequency systems to just over five dollars for the global positioning systems device per diem, which is a marginal cost reduction to states. Some states, however, are requiring the use of GPS devices on sex offenders indefinitely, which could increase costs over a substantial period of time (Beyens & Roosen, 2013; Kilgore, 2012; Roman et al., 2012). There are some electronic monitoring programs where the offender has to pay to be monitored, though, which could mitigate some of the financial obligations on the state (Renzema & Mayo-Wilson, 2005).

Sex offenders receive numerous barriers upon reentry into communities already, such as difficulties finding employment. Electronic monitors add to the burden of finding gainful employment because many companies do not hire individuals with electronic monitors, or will fire them once they find out they have one (Brown et al, 2007). Likewise, sex offenders experience numerous complications once in the community. There are issues with social stigma of having a past sexual offense, being isolated from members in the community, having issues with family members because of sex offense and being on parole, as well as parole stipulations (DeMichele et al., 2009; Farkas & Miller, 2007).

The chronic advancement of legislative policies regarding sex offenders is a clear indication that there are high levels of public fear about sex offenders and a desire to keep them from returning and reintegrating effectively back into the communities. Future research needs to address how the public feels about the increasing number of sex offenders being returned with electronic monitors compared to sex offenders who do not have electronic monitors. Also, future research should attempt to see if there is a public perception difference between sex offenders who are on RF monitors compared to those who have the long-term GPS monitors. Notably, would the public be more receptive of sex offenders returning to their communities if the offender is required to have a GPS monitoring device at all times for the foreseeable future? Would citizens in communities be more willing to reduce other parole stipulations on sex offenders if they did have long-term GPS monitoring devices? If the public knew the cost of incarcerating an offender long-term, would they be more willing to utilize electronic monitoring systems more regularly for sex offenders, and other high-risk offenders as well?




            For sex offenders, it is often difficult to determine how many sex offenses or crimes have been committed by a particular offender because many of these types of offenses go undocumented and unreported. There are also differences between the type of sex crime committed, where adult rapists are going to have higher recidivism rates than child molesters (Meloy, 2005). Consequently, developing an effective crime prevention program in communities for sex offenders can be a daunting task. It is extremely difficult for policies to target offenders before crimes occur, especially in cases of sex offenses, unless early detection and prevention programs are administered. It is most often the case that policies regarding sex offenders are designed in order to prevent future sex offenses from occurring, relying on policies that stem from a specific deterrence perspective. There are, however, numerous other stipulations that sex offenders must face once back in the community, which may either add to or detract from using technologies such as electronic monitoring. If an offender is unable to find gainful employment and reintegrate successfully back into a community, then there will be a higher chance of failure and recidivism and the deterrent effect of GPS monitors will be inconsequential.

The reentry of sex offenders into communities is an important issue for citizens, policy makers, and offenders. Perhaps the answer to successful reentry is to lower the amount of other stipulations that sex offenders receive and keep the GPS monitoring so that they are unable to go in exclusion areas henceforth. A more liberal option would be to keep the other programs and stipulations in place and reduce the length of time that a sex offender is required to have an electronic monitor, potentially increasing the ability to obtain a job and increasing autonomy and responsibility. If legislative policies continue to move in a punitive direction, though, there is little evidence in sight that parole stipulations for sex offenders will be lowered any time soon. It is relative to examine the topic of over-monitoring sex offender populations, however, as numerous studies have indicated that sex offenders will have the lowest levels of recidivism even without electronic monitors. One could argue, however, that many sexual offenses are not reported, so the estimates of sex offender recidivism rates could be vastly underrepresented. Additionally, should public opinion about sex offenders be driving public policy? Should low amounts of single, heinous cases dictate the sanctions for an entire offender population? Or, should what works for recidivism at the lowest cost to the state and offender be implemented instead? It is most unfortunate that there is currently such a separation between these two crucial areas.

Overall, though, electronic monitoring of sex offenders has numerous deterrent effects, especially when utilizing GPS monitoring, which is why it is being utilized in the United States and elsewhere as a key crime prevention tool. The new technologies are able to tell officials the whereabouts of the offenders at all times and can monitor whether they are too close to an exclusion zone. GPS systems are also beneficial in reducing the rates of rearrest and recidivism for the sex offender population. The increased levels of surveillance increase the cost and rate at which one would be caught again and sent back to prison, ultimately decreasing the benefit of committing a new sexual offense.

It would be difficult to suggest that GPS monitoring systems would have as many benefits on other offenders than it does for sex offenders. For sex offenders, the constant monitoring allows officials to be aware if the sex offender is in an area of restriction and keeps a distance between the offender and the victim. For individuals committed of property or violent offenses, it would be hard to suggest that there are particular areas, like schools or day cares, where the offender should be restricted from. However, GPS monitors could be beneficial in tracking the location of offenders in case another crime is committed. In such a scenario, it would be easy to determine if they were in the area the new crime occurred, thus giving law enforcement officials a better idea of who the suspect is, while at the same time being able to determine that the offender is not the person who committed the new crime because they were not in the area when it occurred. Thus, there could be benefits to using GPS monitors on other offenders, however, at the present time the literature is still inconclusive.

Future policy makers should focus on ways to decrease the cost to the state by incapacitating so many offenders. Prisons and jails are and have been overcrowded so effective alternatives to incarceration that prevent present and future criminal behavior need to be examined more effectively. For sex offenders, once they are released back into the community, utilizing GPS monitoring devices as a method of deterring future criminal behaviors seems to have positive outcomes, though the results are still mixed. Once the technology has developed and emerged more in the view of the public, perhaps it will be the answer that policy makers are looking for to appeal to public safety, and corrections officials will utilize as a means to lower incarceration costs and overcrowding.






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