Thursday, July 19, 2018

Do ankle monitors on parolees make anyone safer?

In response to episodes where two different parolees being supervised by ankle monitors reportedly committed murder, one of them allegedly killing three people, law enforcement officials in Houston have been blaming TDCJ for not notifying them more promptly that a potentially dangerous parolee wasn't being monitored. From the Houston Chronicle:
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said the current system reveals communication gaps between TDCJ and local law enforcement. 
“There has to be a better way to identify those individuals that are parole violators who pose a serious threat to public safety,” said Gonzalez. 
Rodriguez’s case is not the only one in recent days that raised concerns about the monitoring of dangerous parolees. Earlier this month, parolee Garry Jenkins, 56, slipped out of his house after curfew — a violation that should have been detected by the ankle monitor that was a condition of his parole — and later allegedly stabbed his mother to death. Five days later, after being arrested for violating parole, he was charged with murder. 
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the recent incidents highlighted the need to notify law enforcement of potential parole violations more quickly. 
“We need to come up with a process that’s almost instantaneous,” said Acevedo, who added that he wants to work with other departments around the area to create a regional task force dedicated to parole violations. 
Houston Police Officers Union President Joseph Gamaldi agreed. 
“We need to know when these monitors are … being cut off, so we can send people out there to look up these people and make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do,” Gamaldi said. “Three days is entirely too long before we know about it, that (someone) could get out there, do crimes and victimize people in our community.”
To the uninitiated, a call for "almost instantaneous" notification whenever parolees' ankle monitors raise a red flag surely sounds reasonable. But people in law enforcement circles - including IMO the officials making these comments - know it's complete bullshit.

In reality, ankle monitors are unreliable supervisors that create more problems than they solve. They exist because the idea sounds good in principle to the political class and is promoted aggressively by vendors, who've seen a big increase in market share. But in practice, if Houston PD began hunting down parole violators every time they (may have) absconded based on GPS data, they'd do almost nothing but that and still not make a dent in the problem they're trying to solve.

That's because ankle monitors have been plagued with false positive problems, to the point that they generate so much bad data as to be practically useless for supervision purposes.

In California, ankle monitors strapped to "high-risk" felons resulted in "agents [who] are drowning in a flood of meaningless data, masking alarms that could signal real danger." One expert told the LA Times in 2014:
"When these alerts are in the tens of thousands, it seems like an unwinnable situation," said Matthew DeMichele, a former researcher for the American Probation and Parole Assn. and coauthor of the Justice Department's guide on electronic monitoring. 
"In some ways, GPS vendors are selling law enforcement agencies, politicians, the public a false bag of goods," he said.
In Massachusetts, according to criminal-defense lawyer Daniel Capetta, "About 3,000 people are currently subject to electronic monitoring in Massachusetts. It has been reported that of these 3,000 GPS bracelets, there are approximately 1,800 alerts generated per day. In the overwhelming majority of these cases, there is no real problem."

In 2007 in Arizona, "140 offenders monitored that year experienced a total of 35,601 false alerts, due to problems such as low batteries or signals lost in dead zones." Of those, "The study group found 463 confirmed violations, meaning that false alerts outnumbered proven infractions by a 77-1 margin."

An essay from the Brookings Institute last year was titled, "Decades later, electronic monitoring of offenders is still prone to failure." Many GPS trackers are easily removed. They mainly exist to provide the public a false sense of security, a CYA backstop for probation and parole departments, and political cover for judges and/or parole boards making release decisions. 

By reducing available supervision resources thanks to spending so much time on false positives, however, arguably these devices harm public safety when used as widely as they are today. It would be even more harmful if HPD officers began spending lots of time tracking down parolees every time an anomalous blip shows up from their tracking device.

Not only can false positives make it hard to track actual evil-doers, they risk punishing innocent people because of technological glitches. Notably one of the inventors of an early GPS monitoring system now thinks they're used improperly and their functions could be shifted to smart phones. He also thinks companies that operate these services should be liable when they exacerbate public safety problems instead of improve them, characterizing their rent seeking posture coupled with a let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may attitude as a "negligent tort."

The same cost-benefit analysis related to ankle monitors applies to sending local police chasing after every parole absconder. According to the latest TDCJ Annual Statistical Report (2016), as of Aug. 31, 2016 (page 5), there were 12,883 parolees, out of 113,363, categorized as "pre-revocation, not in custody." Figure a fifth or so of those are in Houston. However, most of those pose nothing like the danger of the "mattress killer" parolee who allegedly went on a killing spree after cutting his ankle monitor. In fact, many of them just missed a meeting, will likely show up at the next one, and would not be revoked even if captured and brought in.

The truth is, even if TDCJ had notified them "instantaneously" in the recent cases, the Sheriff's Office wouldn't have followed up until a crime had been committed. The Associated Press reported that Harris County "deputies don’t necessarily search for parolees who have violated their terms of release and would only arrest those offenders they come across during the course of a patrol and run a background check."

The chief, sheriff, and police union have a mutual interest in hyping fear in an era of declining crime when law enforcement is making fewer arrests than any time in decades. They all have an interest in bigger budgets, more officers, and increased moral authority for themselves when the public sees them as protectors rather than incompetent bureaucrats.

So there's self-interest in their decision to ignore the problems with ankle monitors - even though their shortcomings are widely understood in law enforcement circles - and IMO it's that self interest we're seeing bubbling up in these comments. It's a win-win: deflects blame for local crimes onto TDCJ, and sets them up to look like champions of public safety when really the solutions suggested harm public safety thanks both to their politicized nature and extreme impracticality.


Anonymous said...

Why slow the criminal down when all the want to do is do their thing? If they're out raping then that's their thing--everybody got their own lifestyle. Who are we to judge?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Slow them down? Did you see the part where one guy murdered three people? How, precisely, 12:33, did it slow him down?

Anonymous said...

I know the case worker at Sentinel (GPS monitoring) was safer. The $398 dollars a month I paid them for over a year let her live in a pretty cush neighborhood with a gate. That was almost twice my rent at the time of my release.

One concern is false positives and equipment malfunctions. I had a good working relationship with my monitoring officer and when it started reporting violations at odd hours they had a troubleshooting SOP she worked through that identified a malfunction. These things aren't 100% accurate and if they reported every violation to police the coin would flip and departments won't respond to every one.

All the monitor did for me was exponentially incentivise holding a job, $14 a day back when minimum wage was still $5 was rough

Anonymous said...

May of this year:

Reports on ankle bracelet monitoring failures and murders committed by people ordered to wear them.

Tim said...

Just release them all from prison because prisons are overcrowded with nonviolent offenders convicted on bogus charges. Prisons don't have AC and healthcare for inmates is taxing state resources. Also prison guards have a high turn over rate.

Anonymous said...

We take them out of prison, put an ankle monitor on them so they can kill us?

James Kilgore said...

Being safe means being secure-that means access to food, employment, healthcare, education, housing. A person is not safe if they lack the basic necessities. Why do we put resources into punitive technology like #ankleshackles instead of into resources to support people as they transition from prison to the community? These devices are a set up. The many rules that accompany a monitor plus the likelihood of device failure make a person much more likely to land back in jail. Plus the house arrest regimes, make it more difficult for a person to find work, connect to community, access medical care-all of which make it more likely for them to end up back behind bars.

Electronic monitors are nothing but another punitive technology designed to make money for the companies that market them and keep bodies flowing back into prisons and jails.

Anonymous said...

Us? Speak for yourself, A parolee with an ankle monitor hasn't killed me.

And the minority who have murdered someone all seem to have killed people they no, not just some rando on the street. The problem is recidivism of a very few that happens to be murder, not that all parolees are just itching to kill someone.

Steven Michael Seys said...

One morning while recovering from a fever, I was sitting on my sofa using my laptop to look up likely job prospects when I got a phone call from the monitoring company that tracks my shackle. They wanted me to move around or kick my leg to prove I hadn't died because the monitor showed no movement. Needless to say, it was a waste of their time and mine, not to mention the tax dollars spent on the whole paradigm.

Anonymous said...

Oh, the more things change the more the stay the same. Another violent criminal who didn't need to be on the streets. Three innocent dead victims to show for it. Does the name McDuff ring a bell? But hey, let's close a few more prisons and parole a bunch of criminals who we're incapable of supervising so we can be "Smart on Crime."

Anonymous said...

GPS electronic monitoring is basically easy money for vendors and a gigantic waste of taxpayer dollars (or a financial burden to those who have to pay for wearing a monitor). It does not stop anyone from doing anything. Unless you have the staff and time to respond instantaneously to a violation, it only reports a problem AFTER it happens. The money would be far better spent on better treatment programs. The best thing about electronic monitoring is that it tells you the exact time and place when someone cuts the monitor off and runs.

Anonymous said...

When an offender cannot pay or afford the cost of the ankle monitor and is consequently revoked to prison, is that considered another form of debtors prison?

Tim said...

7/19/18 10:11PM
I was being sarcastic when I wrote the below as that is to some degree what "Grits" advocates for.

Just release them all from prison because prisons are overcrowded with nonviolent offenders convicted on bogus charges. Prisons don't have AC and healthcare for inmates is taxing state resources. Also prison guards have a high turn over rate.

Soronel Haetir said...

I suggest we switch to movie-style explosive collars. False positive booms is such a small price to pay for progress.

Anonymous said...

Snarky remarks from other readers aside, this was a helpful article, Grits. I learned some things I didn't know.

Anonymous said...

Ankle monitors are masked ona platform of, "for the public's safety". In reality, it's a state or county money generating instrument used to promote a false sense of security .

charles said...

Here is something that only a person who has done a whole lot of time (15-20 years) in TDCJ will know and that is that the parole board will release someone that they surmise, based on his prison record, i.e., always in trouble, that will go out into society and commit these types of henious crimes. I. Know, I sent 20 years in TDC and watched the parole board release people who always stayed in trouble, always went to ad seg, fighting, stealing you name. These people made parole not the ones who keep their nose clean, get their education, etc., don't believe me? It's real easy to find out if a nosy reporter use the FOIA to get this guy's prison record I'll make 3:1 odds this guy was a problem child in prison and the parole board released him early.

Anonymous said...

I too spent a lot of time in TDCJ and agree with Charles @9:07. TDCJ has to parole enough inmates to appear compassionate to the public and fiscally frugal to the taxpayer. Time and time again I (we) watched other inmates with long rap sheets, bad behavior, and many tours in prison make first parole. There is a saying that if you want to make parole you need to get a handful of disciplinary cases. Inmates who do their time flawlessly are deemed to be "gaming the system". TDCJ wants to keep the inmates who are manageable and good workers. They also need full prisons to occupy the workforce. They release the bad guys, the ones most likely to come back, thus keeping the system full.