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GPS: Your Supervising Officer is Watching
A gang member on supervision is accused of
violently assaulting a female victim while at a gang party. The
defendant denies being at the location. However, pretrial services
officers are definitively able to place him at the location of the
attack. The information is provided to state parole agents, the police
and the federal judge. The defendant is returned to state prison for
parole violation, charged with a new criminal offense and his federal
pretrial release is revoked.
How did the federal pretrial services officers know the
defendant was at the crime location? Because they were, in a way,
looking over his shoulder. As a condition of his pretrial release, the
defendant carried a Global Positioning System (GPS) device to track his
whereabouts. When the officers researched his location information for
the evening in question, the GPS data placed him at the scene of the
attack. First developed by the Department of Defense in the late 1970s,
GPS relies on a network of satellites transmitting signals to receivers
to determine a receiver’s location, speed and direction. Today, as GPS
equipment has shrunk to the size of a clunky cell phone, the technology
is available to nearly everyone, from outdoor enthusiasts finding their
way through the wilderness, to drivers negotiating cross-town traffic.
GPS also lets federal probation and pretrial services officers monitor defendants and offenders—around the clock, if necessary.
“GPS monitoring is becoming an increasingly favored form
of electronic monitoring nationwide,” said John Hughes, Assistant
Director of the Office of Probation and Pretrial Services at the
Administrative Office. “And although it can be time and labor intensive,
for selected offenders it delivers continual supervision at a lower
cost than incarceration.” In fiscal year 2007, the AO estimates that
some 50 probation and pretrial offices will use GPS to supervise
offenders or defendants.
As a condition of their sentence or supervised release,
an offender or defendant might be required to carry a GPS unit. The unit
can be either a one-piece unit, looking much like an ankle bracelet,
that transmits data to/from the GPS system; or it can be a two-piece
electronically tethered bracelet and cell phone/GPS receiver. If the
unit is left behind and/or tampered with, an alert is sent to the
monitoring company, which then notifies the supervising officer. Some
GPS units let officers send a text message or voice message directly to
the receiver worn by the offender. Under certain circumstances, an alert
also may be sent if the offender wanders into forbidden territory.
A defendant on a GPS tracking device was
ordered by the federal judge to stay away from his ex-wife due to a
prior history of domestic violence. There also was an active restraining
order. In the middle of the day, the defendant drove by his ex-wife’s
place of employment. The pretrial services officer received a text
message alert and immediately contacted the defendant on the tracking
device, instructing him to come to the office. The officer contacted the
ex-wife, the court was notified and appropriate action was taken.
In this instance, the probation or pretrial services
officer had established exclusion zones around the wife’s home and work.
Similarly, an inclusion zone can be established that alerts an officer
if the offender deviates from a set location, route and schedule, for
example, from home to work to drug treatment. An alert notifies the
officer when an inclusion or exclusion zone is violated.
Active GPS monitoring and passive GPS monitoring have
been the exclusive type of electronic monitoring-based supervision for
the Pretrial Services Office in the Central District of California for
the last four years, where at any given time 180 defendants may be under
supervision—the largest program in the Judiciary.
“The accountability factor is what makes GPS monitoring
superior to any type of electronic monitoring supervision for us,” said
Chief U.S. Pretrial Services Officer George Walker, Central District of
California. “We know where defendants are 24 hours a day. If someone
violates a parameter, an alert is sent and we can take action.” The
district also uses a hybrid of active and passive monitoring for some
The Probation Office in the Southern District of
California has used GPS to monitor offenders for the last four years. At
any time, 40 to 50 people may be monitored.
“In our district, offenders are on GPS monitoring usually
a minimum of 30 days and up to six months,” said Chief U.S. Probation
Officer Ken Young. “For us, it works best for those people with no
history of violence or non-compliance. They’re also usually first-time
The level of monitoring also depends on the offender. “We
have a number of sex offenders on active GPS, or real-time tracking,”
Young said, “where we can literally track the offender moving in the
Passive monitoring, according to Young, is most common in
the Southern District of California. The GPS receiver records the
offender’s movements within a period of time, and a probation officer
reviews it at least once daily, responding to alerts immediately. If
that raises questions about catching an offender “in the act,” both
Young and Walker stress that GPS monitoring is not intended to be a
prevention tool. “It won’t stop a defendant from fleeing, or committing a
crime,” says Walker. The awareness, however, that a probation officer
is tracking movements can be a deterrent, and alerts can give officers
lead time to respond. “We can’t be on their doorstep 24/7,” says Young,
“but GPS is a way for us to monitor location and compliance of someone
in the community. We can, with reasonable certainty, know where someone
is or has been.”
The surveillance also is what Young calls self
sustaining. In most districts, offenders help defray the cost of
monitoring on an ability-to-pay basis. Young estimates that Southern
California’s program is supported 60 percent by offenders.
In the District of Maine, where they’ve used GPS since
May 2006, at any time 25 percent of the district’s probation or pretrial
services clients may be on either active or passive GPS supervision.
Active GPS is difficult because large areas of the state have poor cell
phone service. “We can still use passive GPS,” said Chief of Probation
and Pretrial Services Karen Moody. “But then it becomes an issue of
making sure the court knows we won’t have a client or offender on
minute-to-minute coverage. In every case, we take into consideration the
needs and risks and see if GPS is a good fit.” Ryan Petroff, the
district’s electronic monitoring specialist, sees GPS as an enhancement
Unlike electronic monitoring that only tells officers if
an offender has left the house, GPS can verify if a client has attended
substance or mental health meetings or is at a job site. “With GPS, we
can tell where an offender has been and how long they were there,”
Petroff said. Because of that advantage, he believes as the cost comes
down, “we’ll see a move toward more active GPS.” The cost of electronic
monitoring is estimated to be $4.50 per day, while GPS monitoring can
run $9 per day. Incarcera- tion can cost over $63 per day, per offender.