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  • James Gacek

Tagging Offenders in the ‘True North’: Expanding Electronic Monitoring Programs in Canada

Nellis and colleagues (2013: 4-5) define electronic monitoring as “technology [which] must be understood as nothing more or less than a form of remote surveillant control, a means of flexibility regulating the spatial and temporal schedules of an offender’s life.” The technology has a chameleon-like character of a multi-usable device, and considering the enhanced capabilities of monitoring offenders’ post-conviction or post-release, EM can be presented as a solution to different types of penal problems (e.g. overcrowded prison populations, the need for ‘toughness’ in community penalties, and so forth).

Generally, the offender has a tag attached to their ankle (and in rare cases, the tag is worn on the wrist) and is instructed to stay within a close proximity to a transceiver installed in the offender’s residence, which continually transmits RF signals from the tag to a computer at a distant monitoring and control centre, via either the landline telephone system, GPS satellite system, or the mobile phone system (known as GSM) (Nellis, 2009, 2013). As a relatively new way of controlling (and punishing) offenders in the community, EM has been taken up in varying degrees (either as localized experiments or nationwide schemes) in approximately 25 countries over the last 25 years (Nellis, 2009). Faced with the problem of prison overcrowding and mass incarceration, many Western countries have been and continue to consider alternatives to prison sentences. In an effort to establish more rehabilitative-oriented and less punitive sanctions, EM has become touted as one of the primary solutions to burgeoning prison populations.

However, such solutions and sanctions have been minimally considered within Canada, as the evolution of EM has been relatively gradual and sporadic (c.f. Wallace-Capretta and Roberts, 2013). Contrary to the US and the UK, EM technology has expanded from the correctional to include the sentencing domain in Canada without attracting controversy among either criminal justice professionals or the general public, and has yet to experience some of the heated debates about EM. EM has only recently been associated with sentencing, as its original emergence and development began as a new technological element of the Canadian correctional system.

In this respect, Wallace-Capretta and Roberts (2013: 44-45) contend that no single triggering event was responsible for the introduction of this form of offender monitoring: “[EM] simply emerged as a result of correctional policy transfer from the United States.” Furthermore, the federal nature of the country has meant that EM, where employed across Canada, operates very differently between the provinces and territories.

However, while Canada may lag many other jurisdictions, provinces in the past two decades, such as British Columbia, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Saskatchewan, have embraced this surveillance technology in varying degrees. Unfortunately, at present it is not possible for Canadian scholars to present a detailed and sophisticated statistical profile of the offenders subjected to EM across the country, as such statistics are not annually released by Statistics Canada, and what studies that have been conducted on EM in Canada have become outdated (but no less significant; see for example Bonta et al., 1999, 2000a, 2000b; Hill, 2001; Martin, 2001; Scoville, 2001).

EM can be described as a “sleeper issue” within the field of Canadian criminal justice (Wallace-Capretta and Roberts, 2013: 45). And with the staggering amounts of offenders remanded and/or sentenced to incarceration, a country as progressive as Canada would harness the increased mobility and freedom that EM provides for low-risk offenders. While some of the Canadian public has become gradually aware that offenders in several parts of the country were undergoing EM as part of their post-release programme, most Canadians are familiar with the EM concept because of EM’s “widespread exposure to US news media” (Wallace-Capretta and Roberts, 2013: 45).

Unfortunately, this sleeper issue is a consequence of several facets of EM, such as (1) the limited and sporadic application of EM within Canada; (2) US media coverage of EM influencing the Canadian public’s familiarity with the technology (as mentioned above); and (3) the absence of any high-profile Canadian case in which EM played a role (2013: 45).

The responsibility for criminal justice is shared among the federal, provincial and territorial governments, as the federal government is responsible for the creation of criminal law, while the administration of justice (such as police and court administration) falls within the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories. As a result, this divided criminal justice jurisdiction has impacted the influence of EM insofar as it has not received a nation-wide ‘roll-out’ as has been the case in several European countries to date (Wallace-Capretta and Roberts, 2013).

This divided authority provides provinces and territories with a reasonable autonomy over managing the needs and goals of their respective criminal justice systems and implementing changes to such criminal justice programmes when appropriate or warranted. Therefore, while several provinces in the past have incrementally adopted the EM technology in response to institutional overcrowding, others continue to rely on human verification to ensure compliance with the conditions of parole or temporary absence from prison (Wallace-Capretta and Roberts, 2013: 45).

As can be seen, EM has developed in Canada in a rather haphazard fashion, and there has been no national debate about the utility and propriety of subjecting offenders to this form of surveillance as of yet. Our country needs to examine more closely the way EM operates in other Western countries, the technology’s legitimacy, and its ethical implications upon offenders, victims, and the communities these actors inhabit at large.

Now is the time for academics, criminal justice practitioners and policymakers to consider EM as a contender for alternatives to confinement within Canada. Now is the time to engage in systematic research of EM’s costs and benefits. Now is the time to consider the implementation of a standardized ‘EM policy’ that all jurisdictions of the Canadian criminal justice system can abide by and maintain. The current structure of incarceration is not working in Canada, and before we wait on an American policy transfer, as Canadians, let us continue to advance thoughts about justice which bear progressive and humanistic ends.


Bonta J, Wallace-Capretta S, and Rooney J (1999) Electronic Monitoring in Canada: User Report. Ottawa: Solicitor General Canada.

Bonta J, Wallace-Capretta S, and Rooney J (2000a) Can electronic monitoring make a difference? An evaluation of three Canadian programs. Crime & Delinquency 46: 61-75.

Bonta J, Wallace-Capretta S, and Rooney J (2000b) A quasi-experimental evaluation of an intensive rehabilitation supervision program. Criminal Justice and Behaviour 27: 312-329.

Hill B (2001) What are the real costs of electronic monitoring? Canadian Criminal Law Review 6: 353-359.

Martin D (2001) Gender implications of electronic monitoring. Canadian Criminal Law Review 6: 346-353.

Nellis M (2009) “Electronically Monitoring Offenders and Penal Innovation in a Telematic Society.” In: Knepper P, Doak J, and Shapland J (eds.) Urban crime prevention, surveillance, and restorative justice: effects of social technologies. Boca Raton: CRC Press. Pp. 101-121.

Nellis M (2013) “Surveillance, stigma and spatial constraint: The ethical challenges of electronic monitoring.” In: Nellis M, Beyens K, and Kaminski D (eds.) Electronically Monitored Punishment. New York: Routledge. Pp. 193-210.

Nellis M, Beyens K, and Kaminski, D (2013) “Introduction: Making sense of electronic monitoring.” In: Nellis M, Beyens K, and Kaminski D (eds.) Electronically Monitored Punishment. New York: Routledge. Pp. 1-18.

Wallace-Capretta S and Roberts J (2013) “The evolution of electronic monitoring in Canada: From corrections to sentencing and beyond.” In: Nellis M, Beyens K, and Kaminski D (eds.) Electronically Monitored Punishment. New York: Routledge. Pp. 44-62.


The views and opinions expressed in the blogs are the views of their authors, and do not represent the views of the Faculty of Law, or the University of Manitoba. Academic Members of the University of Manitoba are entitled to academic freedom in the context of a respectful working and learning environment.

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