Electronic monitoring pioneer wants less punishment, more reward

Robert S. Gable and his twin brother invented one of the first monitoring systems for criminal offenders; he is dismayed by how they are used today

Courtesy of Robert Gable

Robert S. Gable, along with his late twin brother Kirkland, are credited with inventing the first electronic monitoring system for criminal offenders while at Harvard University in the 1960s. To aid in offender rehabilitation, the Gable brothers anticipated that the technology they developed would provide positive reinforcement. Gable is a professor emeritus of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California.

Losing Track explores flaws in Wisconsin’s GPS monitoring program for offenders. In 2013, the Center exposed problems including false alerts and lost signals that sent offenders to jail even when they did not violate terms of the monitoring. This series update found that in the past five years, the size of the program has doubled — yet many of the problems remain.

Here are the stories:

Systemic failure: The Department of Corrections’ Electronic Monitoring Center routinely loses satellite signals or cell service for offenders on GPS monitoring.

Civil rights vs. GPS: U.S. courts differ on whether GPS monitoring and other control methods aimed at sex offenders violate their civil rights.

Homeless offenders: Ten percent of offenders on GPS monitoring are homeless, making it hard to keep devices charged.

Regrets of a monitoring pioneer: The man credited with helping to invent offender monitoring wishes the technology were used to rehabilitate offenders — not punish them.


Riley Vetterkind talks about this series on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Central Time and Managing Editor Dee J. Hall discuss the stories on Madison’s WORT.

Robert S. Gable and his late twin brother Kirkland invented the first electronic monitoring system for criminal offenders, tracking the location of at-risk teenagers and probationers in Massachusetts in the 1960s. Electronic monitoring has come a long way since then, but not necessarily to the liking of Gable, a professor emeritus of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California.

While many view the current model for electronic monitoring as an alternative to prison that can save states money, Gable views it as chiefly a punishment driven by public animosity toward sex offenders.

“You can start simply by the legislation that’s done,” Gable told a reporter. “You know it’s not rehabilitation, it’s a matter of punishment. If you had a public whipping of sex offenders, then you could put them on probation afterwards, the public would feel now the offender has been appropriately punished.”

Instead, Gable, who taught behavioral psychology for 30 years, envisions an electronic monitoring program that rewards offenders for good behavior. He likens it to gambling, which is fueled by the anticipation of unpredictable, and sometimes large, rewards.

“Turn the corrections system into a Las Vegas,” Gable said.

But such a system, Gable argues, will be a tough sell to the public.

“The public’s perception of sex offenders — the need for punishment, the lack of rehabilitation — they don’t like rewards being given,” said Gable, who along with his brother shortened their last name from Schwitzgebel.

If the public were to soften its perception of sex offenders, Gable believes his system of positive reinforcement coupled with “swift, certain and yet moderate” punishment for violations could work. He proposes using today’s technology — the smartphone.

Courtesy of Robert Gable

Robert S. Gable’s twin brother, Kirkland, established a system in Thousand Oaks, Calif., under the nonprofit Life Science Research Group that provided monitoring for offenders using a secure ankle band. Here, a participant wears an ankle bracelet as part of a study into the system. Photo taken in December 1989.

Corrections agencies could track offenders through their phones. To assure the device is on them, the system could use voice verification or a thin electronically tethered, tamperproof bracelet worn on the ankle or wrist, Gable said. The smartphone would allow probation officers to more easily dole out positive reinforcement of desired behaviors, he said.

For example, a probation officer could send a text message acknowledging that the offender made it to his treatment group, or telling him he has received a free pizza coupon for arriving at a court date on time. Asking the public to contribute could generate even more rewards for offenders, he said.

“What you’re doing is developing an electronically based community support and guidance system,” Gable said.

Smartphones could remind offenders of upcoming appointments and job-related assignments, keeping necessary structure in their lives. And like most people today, Gable guesses offenders will want to keep their cell phones close to them.

“We will know when monitoring is a success when offenders want to stay on the system,” he said.

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