The Long Arm of the Law

When a convict with a 10-year history of abusing and stalking his ex-wife made parole in Scott County, Minn., last year, the only thing between him and his victim was an inconspicuous bracelet prison officials had attached to his ankle. He paid it no mind and headed straight for his ex-wife.

But before he came within five miles of her, corrections officers were all over him.

That was the last time that convict underestimated his high-tech ankle gear.

Police now can keep tabs on criminals like this one by using Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, the same technology the military uses to target bomb sites and the U.S. Justice Department uses to zero in on drug traffickers.

This is the brainchild of Bob Martinez, U.S. drug czar during the Bush administration and a former governor of Florida. He's marketing the 2-year-old system through his company, Pro Tech Monitoring Inc., Palm Harbor, Fla.

Martinez grew to be distressed by crimes that took place while offenders were out on parole or awaiting trial. His reign as drug czar introduced him to the potential of GPS.

"The military began declassifying GPS in the early 1990s," explains William Lockwood, vice president of sales and marketing for Pro Tech, the only company providing this service so far, "so he recognized that using it to track offenders who were part of the corrections system but not in prison would be a great civilian use of the technology."

State and county corrections officials agree. Police departments in at least 16 states use the system known as SMART (Satellite Monitoring and Remote Tracking) including departments in Lackawanna County, Pa.; Genesee County, N.Y.; Oakland County, Mich.; and the Florida and Michigan corrections departments. Officials laud their new ability to keep violent offenders in check.

In Florida, offenders monitored by GPS have not committed a single felony while on parole. By contrast, 27 percent of offenders tracked with traditional electronic monitoring commit felonies within 18 months.And nationally, 30 percent of all crimes are committed by people under community supervision.

"We have definitely seen the benefit of behavior modification," said Richard Nimer, director of program services for the Florida Department of Corrections. "And while we cannot completely guarantee a victim's safety, this--short of a prison cell--clearly gives us the best potential for preventing re-victimization."

The SMART system is appealing because it uses existing technology, transforming the traditional electronic ankle bracelet from a monitoring device to a tracking device. It records where a wearer of the bracelet goes and enables officers to monitor the person's movement via PC-based workstations and Internet-accessible maps.

Officers can keep track of everywhere someone wearing a bracelet goes, unlike the old bracelets that only notified officers when a bracelet-wearer made trips to and from home or work. Police had no idea where the offender was the rest of the day.

"It was better than nothing, but the person could go to work, commit a heinous crime, get home on time, and there's no indication that that individual did anything out of the ordinary," Nimer said. "With this system, we can determine that they were exactly where they were told to go."

Because convicts knew the limitations of the old bracelets, quite a few of them would make a run for it. Larry Price, chief of the Probation Department of Fresno County, Calif., said 700 probationers--some on traditional electronic monitoring and some on old-fashioned nonmonitored probation--have fled his district.

"We don't know where [they are]," he said, adding that criminals on probation nowadays are not all thieves, bad-check writers or juvenile delinquents. Today, many of the 13,000 offenders under Price's watch include violent felons who, in his opinion, require constant scrutiny.

Fresno County is the latest county to sign on to the SMART system, installing a system in November to track domestic violence offenders.

While it is possible to commit crimes on the GPS monitoring system, Lockwood said, because the system records a criminal's every move, it is easy to place a suspect at a crime scene. In fact, Florida uses its monitoring system in conjunction with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Crime Mapping Database, an incident reporting system used by county and city police, to see if bracelet-wearers are nearby as crimes occur.

Also, criminals can cut their bracelets and attempt to flee with the GPS system, but an escape is less likely because an alarm sounds in a monitoring station the second a bracelet is severed. In Florida, one parolee cut his bracelet, got on an interstate and headed for the border. But law enforcement officials, aware of exactly when and where the offender abandoned the bracelet, got right on his trail, put out an all-points bulletin and located him within hours.

"With a traditional parole program, they could get a 30-day jump on us because they were only required to meet with their parole officer once a month," Nimer said. "Now we know immediately if they've cut their bracelet and we then notify law enforcement and the victim."

Another GPS fault is that the signal can be lost in tunnels or in dense urban areas. But Pro Tech tries to keep officials informed about what the offender is doing during these "caution periods."

The device has a motion detector, so even if the GPS signal is lost, officials know if the offender is on the move and at what speed.

Victims also benefit from the monitoring system. With SMART, corrections officers can be notified if an offender is not at a certain place at the required time or if he comes near prohibited areas. For instance, an alarm would sound at a monitoring station if a domestic abuser comes near his victim's home or if a pedophile approaches a school. In addition, victims--outfitted with pagers and cell phones--are paged as soon as an offender penetrates a "hot zone" so that they have time to leave the area or call 911.

"Everyone feels a lot safer," said George Miller, manager of community corrections in Oakland County, Mich., which uses the SMART system on some people accused of assault but who have made bail.

Miller said his department educates victims, who must give their permission before SMART can be used. Victims are told about the benefits and limitations of the system.

Fresno County's Price said this technology especially is relevant in his county, where the domestic violence caseload has nearly tripled in the past two years. And with 145 officers monitoring 13,000 probationers, the caseloads average one officer for every 150 juveniles and one officer for every 400 adults.

"That's absolutely ludicrous," Price said.

Paying for such a high-tech and sophisticated system might seem prohibitive, but SMART can be affordable.

Monitoring stations use Microsoft Corp. Windows-based software and the initial Internet setup costs are minimal. Pro Tech will lease the monitoring equipment to the governments, and some of the costs can be passed on to offenders.

In Fresno County, for example, probationers who once paid $7 to $10 a day for the electronic ankle bracelet system now pay up to $16 a day for GPS monitoring. If the convicts were to remain in jail, the state and county could pay as much as $75 a day for adults and $100 a day for juveniles.

"It's usually pretty easy to get adult offenders to pay because the alternative is jail," Price said, adding that the department is pushing legislation that would force parents to pay for juvenile costs associated with house arrest.

Despite the Orwellian nature of using satellites to keep an eye on lawbreakers, constitutional watchdogs have yet to challenge SMART. Kara Gotsch, a public policy coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, said the system can be a plus to keep offenders out of crowded prisons."We have such a high incarceration rate, we need to look at other means of punishing people," Gotsch said.

-- Heather Hayes is a free-lance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va.

***

High-Tech Ball and Chain

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a system of 24 military satellites that orbit 11,000 miles above the Earth. It takes three to five satellites to pinpoint the exact location of a GPS receiver anywhere in the world.

The Satellite Monitoring and Remote Tracking (SMART) system uses this sophisticated technology to track the movements of pretrial and paroled offenders, but Pro Tech Monitoring Inc., the company that designed the system, hopes to market it for other things, including recovering stolen vehicles, locating rebellious teenagers and managing commercial drivers.

Here's how SMART works:

* Portable tracking device: For GPS to work, an offender must carry a GPS receiver, complete with a microprocessor and antennae, to record locations. The offender carries the device in a waist pack. The recorded data is fed to a data center or a monitoring station via a cellular transmission when portable or via a phone line when the device is charging at the offender's home. The microprocessor in the unit can be programmed to create inclusion zones (places the offender must be at certain times) and exclusion zones (places where the offender is not allowed). If either zone is violated, the receiver sends an alarm via pager to the monitoring station and the victim.

* Electronic ankle bracelet: Equipped with a radio transmitter, this traditional monitoring device works in tandem with the GPS receiver, essentially acting as an electronic tether. The receiver constantly measures the signal strength in the ankle bracelet. Thus, if the receiver is left behind in the house while the offender goes to work, the receiver will set off an alarm at the monitoring station. Both pieces of equipment also have tamper-detection features to keep offenders from trying to remove or dismantle them.

* Monitoring stations: The data collection center of the operation requires only a PC workstation and Microsoft Corp. Windows-based software designed by Pro Tech. When SMART is in action, the screen shows maps ranging from single streets to citywide zooms. "Blips" indicate where the offender is. Staff members keep pagers and cell phones that take violation calls from the GPS receiver.

* SMART surveillance system: Through a secure Internet connection, a monitoring station can access and save information to a Pro Tech-created database of national maps, longitudinal and latitudinal points, maps of offenders' movements and customized reports.

-- Heather Hayes

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