"The first question you have to ask is, 'What are they doing out of prison to begin with?' " says Allen. "Nonetheless, when they serve [their sentence], you have no option but to release them. And when you release them, there needs to be a system for meaningful oversight and supervision; GPS is an incredibly valuable tool to provide that kind of oversight; particularly at a time when our system for supervision of these offenders [is] so overtaxed, undermanned and underfunded."
When Congress passed the Adam Walsh Act in 2006, it set a three-year time window for states to upgrade their systems in order to create a greater level of consistency and uniformity in tracking sex offenders. The problem was, funds were not appropriated to help states implement it.
In addition to creating better cooperation and communication between jurisdictions, the Adam Walsh Act further allowed for the tiering of registered sex offenders, so that those who present the greatest risk of re-offense are in one tier and those less likely to reoffend are in a third.
Moran notes that GPS unit parameters are based on the customer's decision, offender risk-level and the period in which the data gets called in. For high-risk individuals, data is called in constantly - especially if they are somewhere they're not supposed to be. "So long as the GPS receiver on the ankle can hear a satellite signal, we're tracking them," says Moran. "You can pretty much go anywhere in the world and be tracked."
When sexual predators enter exclusion zones most agencies ask to have police dispatched immediately. SecureAlert's TrackerPAL has a 95-decibel alarm, as well as a recording capability. In the case of one child predator who denied being in an exclusion zone, Hastings says children on the playground could be heard over the device. "One benefit of having the integrated cellular voice communication is that administrators can also hear surrounding sounds. When you have a child predator who is telling you, 'I'm not in a playground or school yard,' and you can actually hear the swing sets clanging, you can take action immediately."
GPS still struggles underground, or anywhere where there's no line of sight to the sky. This is where the cellular part of a two-piece equation comes in handy. Some units also use a wireless indoor radio frequency beacon (within the same device) that creates an electronic fence inside a complex.
Outfitting known sex offenders with tracking devices is obviously not a cure-all. But it also cannot hurt. That is, if states can afford to use it as intended.
Effective, when used effectively
Many people also feel that while GPS technology is helpful, it should not be overly relied upon. Andrew Harris, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, cautions that problems arise when legislators take it upon themselves to dictate practice without fully considering the perspectives of law enforcement practitioners, how it will be implemented and at what cost.
"There is an indication that if you use it selectively, as an adjunct to supervision, treatment and good quality community correctional practice, that it may help. But to expect that GPS is going to make us safer in and of itself is a recipe for us not being safer."
Hastings says that especially with sex offenders, sometimes just the idea of "getting tough and relying on technology tends to carry the day," as opposed to being selective and thinking about how law enforcement resources are going to be used efficiently. "Rationality doesn't always prevail," says Harris. "Every time you put a GPS device on somebody, it may or may not be appropriate."
When used correctly, supervised technology can be freeing. Wearers can live outside of the system with monitoring, and a huge burden is lifted from jails and corrections facilities. Offenders can communicate with officers, keep track of court dates, attend Alcoholics Anonymous, counseling sessions and go to work. SecureAlert has devised the CARE initiative (Correction, Accountability, Rehabilitation, and Empowerment) with this in mind. CARE aims to expand positive communication and erect electronic walls versus prison walls. "It's a privilege to leave a cell and go back to your family and your work life," says Hastings. "We may limit your movements, but our technology allows you to go back to work and pay your debts and obligations."