Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Limits of GPS Tracking for Probation and Parole

Especially for readers of the excellent Corrections Sentencing blog, "technocorrections" is all the rage in the law enforcement and criminal justice arenas. But just like early adopters of computer gadgetry that quickly becomes anachronistic, some technocorrections solutions like ubiquitous camera surveillance and GPS tracking of probationers haven't always delivered as advertised. According to today's London Telegraph:

The practice of electronically tagging criminals, suspects and alleged terrorists on control orders is being undermined every time the mobile phone system crashes, it was claimed yesterday.

The monitoring system relies on mobile phone technology, meaning that offenders are uncontactable for hours at a time when the network malfunctions.

The signal from the tag is also blocked when the person wearing it is in a cast iron bath, an investigation by the BBC Panorama programme has found. It is also claimed the tags can be removed by burning with the cigarette lighter, according to details of the inquiry reported by the Mail on Sunday.

The BBC placed an undercover reporter in the offices in Norwich of Serco, a leading private security company. The firm has handled more than 100,000 "tagged" individuals for the Government and has a contract currently to monitor around 6,000. Many tags are used for people on "home detention curfews."

Electronic tagging devices for people released from prison, as a "low risk," or suspects on bail, was introduced by the Government in 1999.

"The picture that emerges is one that includes regular equipment breakdowns, offenders breaching their curfew with little apparent consequence and of monitoring officers struggling to actually locate the people who they should be tagging," Panorama said.

That doesn't sound like a great track record, does it, for a program that's been in place eight years? I'm reminded that victim advocates at the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA) more or less predicted such problems in legislative testimony critical of Texas' new Jessica's Law:
A careful examination of salient facts indicates that universal GPS monitoring of all registered sex offenders would be ill advised. First, most sex offenders victimize in places where we expect them to be (i.e. their own homes and the homes of people they know well.) The sad fact is, providing extra measures to keep sex offenders from restricted areas (schools, parks) does not protect the overwhelming majority of child victims of sexual abuse who are molested in their own homes or the home of the abuser. Second, GPS uses relatively new technology with known flaws and limitations. For example, like cell phones signals, GPS signals are frequently lost in forested and mountainous areas; they don't work in urban canyons, underground rail lines, buildings and sometimes even automobiles. Third, GPS is expensive ($6 to $10 per day per offender). California estimated that the net fiscal impact for GPS tracking of sex offenders in that state is likely to be "several tens of millions of dollars annually for the first few years, probably reaching at least $100 million in about ten years, and increasing significantly thereafter." Finally, GPS monitoring is not designed to be a stand-alone sex offender management tool. When used in conjunction with other management tools (e.g. specialized sex offender supervision caseloads, home contacts, employment verifications, alcohol and drug testing, treatment, case reviews, risk assessment instruments, collateral contacts, polygraph testing), GPS does hold promise. However, there is little scientific research regarding its effectiveness for management of even predatory sexual offenders. Under no circumstances should GPS of registered sex offenders be considered a ‘silver bullet.’
People often talk about GPS tracking as though it's a replacement for probation and parole officers, and it sounds like that's what happened in Great Britain. The reality: GPS generates MORE data which therefore requires more people to analyze and make it usable and more POs to act on the information. GPS as part of an integrated supervision model would actually create MORE work, not less, for government agents. Without that human component, there's nothing about a bunch of dots moving around on a computer screen that makes us inherently safer.

UPDATE: See this report from the Center for Criminal Justice Technology on GPS tracking that a helpful reader pointed out to me, particularly the discussion on pages 2-14 and 2-15 (pp. 35-36 on the pdf document) of unanticipated problems with using GPS equipment.


Anonymous said...


Please review TexasProbation.blogspot.com on GPS and Bexar County.


greece hotels said...

Hey buddy great Post. Perfect way of writing.Good Information. Here i want to share something about Gps tracking device. Hope it helps you .

Anonymous said...

I have nothing against GPS tracking on sex offenders but the problem I have is that I was young and went across the state line with a 17 teen year old and I was 23 and we were just friends I never touch her in my life but she tried to be a prostitue and got in trouble and they put me away cause I give her the ride. And now 34 years later in California made me a sex offender cause they say I was pandering with my friend and I was never charged with pandering or sex offender and I have a GPS on and it made me homeless for 20 months and am still homeless and lost my job because they put everything under the 290 sec law. And the people don't know it but the people they should have it on they don't they are just using a lot of people to get money I really wish the public would look it to what they are doing with people's lives. Thank You.