America’s mass incarceration problem is often described as a crisis, something that may actually have caused more crime than it’s prevented. In 1980, some five hundred thousand Americans were in prison or jail; by 2013, the number had surpassed 2.2 million. Less well known, though arguably no less important, is the country’s post-incarceration crisis, with more than 4.7 million Americans living on probation or parole in 2013, a nearly four hundred percent increase over the number in 1980. This increase has created a huge administrative challenge for the probation and parole system, and many cities and states have started turning to computer kiosks to help deal with caseloads that would otherwise be unmanageable. While these computer-driven efficiency gains have helped keep the system from collapsing, they’ve also helped build one of the largest and most punishing civilian surveillance programs in the country, creating a second-tier citizenry that lives under constant threat of re-arrest for a missed appointment or failed drug test.

New York City was among the first jurisdictions to automate probation. In the early 1990s, the city purchased 16 kiosks for $750,000 and launched a pilot program under which low-risk offenders would check in on them instead of seeing a human probation officer. Each was equipped with a video screen, keypad, and infrared hand scanner. After entering a personal identification number, the kiosk would pose a series of basic questions about whether the probationer had been re-arrested, had found work, or had any additional counseling needs. The program was regarded as a success and by 2004 more than 30,000 people in New York were using the kiosks. Today, kiosks cover 70 per cent of the city’s active probation cases.

Many other cities and states took note. California relies heavily on the machines, with thirteen separate offices using them in Los Angeles County alone. Texas, Florida, Maryland, Arkansas, and others have similar programs. Though computers are radically more powerful today than they were in the nineteen-nineties, the kiosks have remained relatively consistent, sticking to a basic structure of touchscreens, hand or fingerprint scanners, cameras for photographing the probationer, and keyboards for entering information about employment, address changes, or upcoming appointments. Though the cost of kiosks can vary significantly, a typical unit goes for between $20,000 and $30,000, a bargain compared with the median annual salary of a probation officer, $48,190 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2004, the New York City program was paying $25,000 per kiosk, but decided to start its own in-house technology unit to build its own hardware using off-the-shelf parts, dropping the per-unit cost to $7,000.

Michael Jacobson, who oversaw the original kiosk program as New York City’s probation commissioner from 1992 to 1996, and now serves as executive director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, told me that he and his colleagues had adopted them out of desperation, in the face of a budget squeeze under the administration of David Dinkins. “Everything was getting cut, so the discussion within probation was, ‘How do we do this in a way that’s not just increasing a probation officer’s caseload from two hundred to four hundred?’ ” he told me. The answer was computers. “We didn’t think the kiosks would be any better,” he said. “It was just a vehicle to get money to reinvest in the high-risk cases.”

This calculation hasn’t changed much in the two decades since the pilot program, and in many ways, the political pressure to do more with less has only gotten worse. “If you can see three people in an hour, four people in an hour, you’re not really able to engage with the offenders who might have an issue or a problem,” Mike Masone, Sales Director for Slabb Kiosks, which manufactures probation machines for the Arkansas Department of Corrections, told me. “If it’s just coming in and saying you haven’t left the state and making a judge’s payment, you don’t really need someone’s time.” Slabb’s kiosks are also used by Hilton Hotels, Harrah’s Casino, Whole Foods, and Chanel, where their monitor and keypad setups can be used to give directions, scan prices, do product searches or help answer questions about a store’s services. The company’s Arkansas machines are based on its X6 Transactional Kiosk model, which it also sells as information or advertising terminals for use in malls and casinos.

Companies like Slabb, NORIS, Kiosk Information Systems, and Sentinel Offender Services have helped popularize the probation kiosk systems using hardware similar to what you might use to check-in for a flight at an airport or do self-checkout at the drug store. A report from Research and Markets estimates the global market for kiosks and vending machines to reach $31.75 billion by 2020, with estimated annual growth of 12 percent, a huge industry in which probation kiosks make up only one small piece. “It’s a growing but a finite market,” Masone says, noting that most contracts run for three to five years, a lengthy period that keeps yearly profits stable but not stratospheric. Also limiting are contracts signed at the county and state level, which don’t have quite the same capacity for volume-driven profit as a deal with McDonald’s or Marriott. “We’ll see what happens here politically in the next few years,” he says, “but at a certain point we’ll have to turn the prisons upside down and shake them to get some people out. The management of those people will be really important and kiosks are a really inexpensive way to do that.” 

The idea of probation is a relatively modern phenomenon, based on the desire to rehabilitate defendants instead of punishing them with prison. It’s often traced to John Augustus, a Massachusetts cobbler who in 1841 convinced a judge to discharge a local drunk into his care instead of sending him to jail. Augustus built a small cottage industry around rehabilitating people through work training and religious study, claiming to have more than 1,800 people from imprisonment by the time he tied in 1859. In 1878 Massachusetts passed the country’s first probation law, and in 1900 Vermont, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Minnesota, and Illinois followed suit. By 1910, 39 of the 46 states in the US had some probation law on the book, though many were still overseen by volunteers from churches and synagogues. Before probation laws were popularized, judges would often suspend sentences in cases where they found the sentencing options too punitive, especially when dealing with juvenile offenders. In 1916, the Supreme Court ruled that indefinitely suspending sentences was unconstitutional and suggested the conflict over unjustly harsh sentencing “may be remedied for the future by appropriate legislation.” That legislation arrived in 1925 with the Federal Probation Act, creating a national framework for rehabilitation as an alternative to imprisonment.

Today, probation programs have been largely disconnected from their rehabilitative roots and work mostly as systems of threat-based surveillance. Roughly half of prisoners released end up rearrested for a probation or parole violation or a new offense within three years of their release. One of the biggest problems is the length of probation can far exceed terms of imprisonment, which Jacobson argues can build up resentment as they drag on. Living under heightened scrutiny for three or five years make slip-ups almost inevitable, from having a drink or smoking a joint to leaving the county without advance permission. A Department of Justice survey found that 25 percent of the people on probation or parole in 2005 wound up re-arrested just for violating the terms of their probation or parole.

 “Agencies are very good at catching you in those statuses and sending you back to prison,” Jacobson said. “One of the big drivers of mass incarceration is people who are failures from probation or parole, and half those people are not committing new crimes, they’re breaking one or more conditions of their probation or parole. You look at what those conditions are—be drug free, be alcohol free, have a job, have a place to live, don’t hang out with known felon—it’s a system set up for failure.” In New York City, probationers assigned to kiosks wound up having lower violation rates, according to Jacobson, which he attributes to the kiosks being “a less invasive, slightly more civilized process.” According to a study of New York’s kiosk program by The JFA Institute, two-year re-arrest rates for low-risk probationers on kiosks dropped from 31 percent to 28 percent. According to the American Probation and Parole Association, an organization of corrections professionals, academics, and researchers, “low risk offenders are more likely to recidivate with too much correctional intervention rather then no intervention. In most cases, the shorter time a low risk offender is on probation, the better.”

Stephen Cannella has been on probation for almost all of his adult life. The twenty-six year-old from Wappingers Falls, New York was released from federal prison in June, after serving two years for possession of child pornography, something he says he inadvertently downloaded through a torrenting service and deleted. Cannella says he’d much prefer to use probation kiosks, but he’s considered ineligible because he’s a sex offender. Kiosks are reserved for the either low-risk cases in which the probationer is deemed to pose a minimal threat to public safety, or cases in which a person has been on probation for several years without incident. 

The terms of Cannella’s probation feel much more threatening than rehabilitative. Each night, before he goes to bed, he dials up an automated service, punches his I.D. number into the keypad, and finds out whether he’ll have to be drug tested in the morning. Since June, he has had to make the trip to the Westchester County Probation Office seven times. He pays a monthly fee to have Internet monitoring software installed on his laptop and smart phone. “I call to check in about every little thing,” he tells me. “I literally can’t afford to go back.” He will be 33 by the time he’s off probation.

For Jacobson one of the biggest benefits of the kiosk program is its potential to make more money available for programs aimed at counseling and rehabilitation instead of the fear-driven monitoring Cannella is subject to. “We’ve starved probation because there’s no political capital in helping people,” Jacobson said. “You’re never going to get ten thousand dollars a person to deal with their criminogenic needs and get them in to treatment.” Even still, Jacobson thinks we’re in a “historical moment” where meaningful progress could be made, citing efforts to end mandatory minimum sentencing laws and shorten mandatory terms of probation as signs of progress, all of which could save states money by lessening the administrative burdens of the penal system. 

“Can we use that money to invest in doing some amount of good for folks instead of using technology to make it easier to send them back to prison?” he wonders. “There’s a sense that it’s just too much. These systems just don’t work the way they’re structured now.”