Where no WAN has gone before

In November 2005, investigators with the United States Park Police contacted the District of Columbia's Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) in connection with the investigation of an assault that occurred at Logan Circle a month earlier. CSOSA is the agency responsible for supervising more than 15,000 parolees, supervised releases and probationers in Washington, D.C.

Witnesses of the assault had observed the suspect wearing an ankle bracelet and a device attached to his belt — a technology police suspected might match those worn by offenders being monitored by CSOSA using GPS (Global Positioning System) tracking.

CSOSA reviewed its records and was subsequently able to place one offender at the scene of the crime at precisely the time identified by Park Police. In fact, the records showed the suspect departing the area at a rate of speed suggesting he was running. The suspect was later arrested and confessed to the assault.

GPS, augmented by cellular telephone technology, has given criminal justice authorities a new tool to add to the traditional range of noncustodial sentencing options.

The District of Columbia was among the first to evaluate the utility of these GPS satellite tracking systems. Since inception of the GPS Electronic Monitoring pilot in October 2003, approximately 291 different offenders have been placed on the system.

High-tech monitoring

Satellite tracking is used to control and monitor the location of individuals to ensure they are complying with restrictions placed on them by the courts as a condition of their release from prison. It's a high-tech alternative to full-time incarceration.

Two types of monitoring technologies exist — radio frequency (RF) tracking and GPS tracking. RF tracking, which is essentially a binary system — either the subject is home or is not at home — has been around for more than 20 years. GPS, which made its appearance on the criminal justice scene in the past five years, refines that capacity; it has the ability to track subjects at all times, and can locate them within 2 meters on survey maps.

Tracked subjects must wear two pieces of equipment — a tag around their ankle and tracking device on their belt or at waist height. The tag checks that the device is being worn by the subject and is within close proximity of the tracking device, while the tracking device calculates the offender's location and relays it to the monitoring agency.

Some tracking systems are trending toward just one piece of equipment, which is easier for the offender. But current communication capabilities at ankle level are not optimal and can present challenges in reception and transmission.

The advantage of two-piece systems is that GPS reception is generally better because the tracking device is worn at waist level. The downside of the two-piece system is the device can be inadvertently left (or abandoned) on the charger cradle, even though manufacturers have built-in alarms that sound if the subject strays more than 25 feet from the unit.

GPS trends

At this point, the number of agencies using RF monitoring technology still dwarfs GPS satellite tracking market penetration, although the trend is clearly toward GPS.

"We estimate that 110,000 offenders are currently being supervised with electronic RF monitoring in the United States, whereas the GPS market is probably only about 10 percent of that," says Jock Waldo, vice president of sales, marketing and operations for BI Inc., a manufacturer of electronic monitoring equipment.

Waldo says the direction is beginning to change.

"We're seeing GPS momentum pick up as legislative activity is driving the level of agency interest toward GPS," Waldo says.

GPS tracking addresses the hot issue of sex offenders and sexual predators being loose in the community. According to the Bureau of Justice, there are 4.8 million probation and parole offenders living in U.S. communities, many of whom are sex offenders. In the wake of Megan's Law in 1996 and recent events such as the 2005 Jessica Lunsford incident in Florida, more than 30 states have either enacted legislation or have laws pending requiring certain offenders to wear some form of tracking technology.

Simply registering sex offenders is inadequate. There is a growing and disturbing trend in which sex offenders evade Megan's Law community notification systems simply by moving and not reporting their new address. New Jersey authorities recently reported they don't know the whereabouts of approximately 300 New Jersey registered sex offenders. This was one of the principal reasons New Jersey is now in the midst of a two-year pilot program designed to monitor the state's most dangerous sexual predators with the aid of satellite tracking. The program will ultimately include more than 200 of the most dangerous sex offenders.

Some states, such as New York, are attempting to model their laws after Florida, which has the toughest child-sex law in the nation. Florida imposes harsher penalties on child molesters and requires many of those released from prison to wear satellite tracking devices for the rest of their lives.

Outta sight

GPS tracking technology has found its way offshore as well. In 2004, the British Home Office established three pilot programs to examine the efficacy of satellite tracking of offenders.

Under legislation that became law in September 2004, magistrates in local courts now can sentence offenders to a new community order — an Exclusion Order — and require them to wear an electronic monitoring device which can be tracked by GPS. Offenders also can be required to wear the device as a condition of their release from prison.

Many UK offenders are already subject to electronic monitoring requirements, whether they have been sentenced to a curfew order or released from prison on Home Detention Curfew. A device or "tag" ensures offenders must submit to curfew restrictions by remaining within the property at which their monitoring equipment has been installed.

"Satellite tracking is an additional safeguard as it will provide information on an offender's whereabouts, wherever they are, day or night," says Assistant Chief Officer Nigel Byford of West Midlands Probation Area. "It also will allow for the electronic enforcement of exclusion zones, areas the offender is not allowed to enter at any time."

The British pilots were designed to evaluate how tracking can best be deployed and what sorts of offenders are best suited for tracking.

"The tests also will give us the opportunity to further develop fast and effective responses to incidents involving high-risk offenders," Byford says.

On the right track

Satellite tracking comes with several key benefits, not the least of which is the deterrent it provides against repeat offending. It also offers a higher level of protection to the public by ensuring a subject does not enter prescribed areas such as an elementary school or victim's neighborhood without enforcement agencies being notified immediately. Law enforcement and probation agencies have near real-time intelligence about a subject's movements, allowing them to intervene rapidly if restrictions are violated.

GPS tracking systems also work in favor of offenders, assisting rehabilitation by ensuring the subject's family life and work can continue with minimal disruption. Effective surveillance is gained without restricting movement to a crippling degree.

Privacy rights don't seem to be a big issue with satellite tracking technology, even though some critics say it raises the specter of an Orwellian future.

"The law is simple — when a person is placed on probation or parole, the courts have a right to place reasonable restrictions, limits and conditions on that person's freedom," says Clifford Fishman, professor of law at the Catholic University of America.

Fishman says that while he would not want to see every person on probation or parole required to wear one of these things or have to be monitored by these devices, in appropriate cases it is perfectly proper.

Kim Colwell, a partner at Meyers Nave in Oakland, California, says the privacy issue depends on what crime the person is convicted of and what the terms of his/her probation or sentencing is.

"For example, if you have a sex offender who is required to stay away from schools and adult book stores, then monitoring to make sure he/she doesn't go near these 'forbidden' areas seems justified," she says. "On the other hand, if someone was convicted of check fraud, tracking and intrusion into where they go seems more problematic."

Track record

Still, satellite tracking has spun off a number of other liabilities. Signal loss is one problem. GPS signals remain vulnerable to natural and man-made obstacles, such as canyons, buildings or some atmospheric conditions. And, since all GPS units on the market rely on cellular telephone communications to relay GPS positioning to the agency, many locations remain where cell service is interrupted or unavailable.

"We try to educate our customers about developing a false sense of security," Waldo says. "There is no guarantee that just by putting one of these devices on an offender you will always know where they are because there are holes in every system."

Another issue is the public perception that the technology is real time. It is not real time; it is near-time. Most tracking systems communicate once per minute. If a subject is driving and the system locates him at Fourth St. and Main St. at precisely 8:30 p.m., by the time the data is transmitted over the cell network to the agency (which can take from 5 seconds to 2 minutes), the subject could be at 18th St. and Main St.

One significant concern for law enforcement agencies is adequate staffing. Many agencies migrating to GPS build their officer and case load ratios based on older RF monitoring models.

"Whereas with RF systems you had maybe eight or 10 alerts per day, with GPS tracking agencies can be inundated with information," Waldo says.

For example, if certain traffic corridors are established for an offender delineating where that offender can go during the day, and the offender veers off that corridor, even by a block or two, the agency is notified. But this route deviation can be as innocent as detouring around a construction zone. Agencies must establish new procedures to cover these contingencies, because they can't dispatch a response team every time an offender departs an approved corridor.

Also, most experts agree GPS tracking is far more complex than RF monitoring, that it takes more planning and more work on policies and procedures to implement an effective program.

"GPS also takes more staffing to appropriately respond, and more effort to manage the expectations of the courts, legislature and public as to what this technology will and will not do," Waldo says.

GPS also takes more money. While RF monitoring costs in the range of $2.50 to $3 per day per offender, state-of-the-art near-time GPS can cost three times as much, from $8.50 to $9.

GPS is taking law enforcement agencies and the offenders they monitor "where no WAN has gone before."