With prison overcrowding a major national problem, there's a booming market for electronic systems that can monitor minor offenders at home. It's a serious business -- that began with a comic strip.

Back in 1977 criminal lawyer Jack Love read a Spiderman comic featuring a villain who tracked the webslinger's movements via an electronic bracelet. Why, Love wondered, couldn't law-enforcement officials use something similar to track prisoners? It was an idle thought -- until Love became a judge and realized how crowded local prisons were. So he approached some technology companies about making an electronic bracelet for monitoring convicts. Mike Goss, a Honeywell salesman, took the idea seriously enough to quit his job and develop such a product. Thus, an industry was born.

Today 7,500 prisoners are tracked daily with electronic home-monitoring systems, according to J. Robert Lilly of Northern Kentucky University. That's a threefold increase over last year and nearly 10 times as many as in 1987. But neither Goss nor Love is sharing in that growth. As a judge, Love couldn't get involved in the business. Goss, along with two cofounders and an investor, sold their company to BI Inc., in Boulder, Colo., which now derives at least 90% of its $5.5 million in revenues from electronic home monitors. And where does BI get its new-product ideas? "I haven't had time to read the comic strips lately," confesses vice-president of sales Richard Willmarth. "I just hope the engineers do."

-- Martha E. Mangelsdorf