System uses GPS to keep tabs on parolees

In an effort to reduce relapses into criminal behavior among paroled offenders, several Florida public safety agencies are using a new mapping and analysis system that could simplify police work nationwide.

The VeriTracks system, developed by Arlington, Va.- based Veridian Corp., tracks the whereabouts of paroled offenders and compares that with the locations of recent criminal incidents in a jurisdiction. The system integrates Global Positioning System satellite tracking and criminal databases with geographic information systems into a Web-based tool. Advocates say the tool could help streamline and speed up investigations of an incident, save taxpayer money, modify a parolee's activities and reduce crime.

"Historically, people on supervision — whether it's parolees or probationers — recidivate at an alarming rate," said Sheriff Donald Eslinger of Seminole County, Fla., where the system has been in use since early August. "A national study indicates that over 40 percent will be rearrested in a 36-month period. And what we want to do is manage and modify their behavior to conform with the law and one way of doing that is monitoring their movements and activities."

So far, the county has about a half dozen or so individuals participating in the program. They are using the tracking devices as a condition of bond or pre-trial release — the other option is incarceration, he said. Eslinger added that the county anticipates expanding the program to include 100 such people.

In addition to the sheriff's office, the county corrections and probation offices, and the Longwood and Sanford police departments — which share a computer-aided dispatch system that automates and maps reported crimes — are participating in the program.

Eslinger also said Florida's Department of Corrections has about 500 individuals with GPS devices who can be monitored by his office if they enter his jurisdiction. Of those 500, about 17 state parolees live in Seminole County, he added.

For the past few years, GPS monitoring devices and similar technologies have been used as traditional house arrest devices. But the technology has advanced to allow passive and active monitoring of individuals. VeriTracks takes it one step further by plotting individuals' movements against criminal incidents (see box, Page 50).

Parole officers can set up exclusion or inclusion zones. Examples of exclusion zones are high drug-trafficking areas, pawnshops or schools. When officials look at a parolee's movements the previous day, they can see whether the individual violated those zones.

On the other hand, inclusion zones can include an office, school, drug treatment facility or home. Specific times can be set up when an individual has to be in a particular place. For example, a parolee has to be at work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. If he leaves the office during that time, it may be a violation.

Advocates say VeriTracks makes parolees more transparent and accountable. It also reduces the workload for parole officers who may have a caseload of up to 150 parolees in some jurisdictions.

Although GPS is not always exact, it does give officials an idea of how long an individual may have been at a particular location or how close he or she was to a criminal incident, said Brian Moran, Veridian's program manager for VeriTracks. But because GPS is a line-of-sight technology, a signal can be lost when individuals enter a building or "urban canyons," he said. In that case, the device records the time it is disconnected, but automatically re-establishes contact with the satellite when it can.

Moran said public safety officials receive e-mail summaries every morning of specific criminal incidents, parolees who were near the crime scene and how long they were there. The e-mail also provides authorized law enforcement officers a direct link to a secure Web site that describes the incident in detail, including the primary offense, reporting agency, incident and case numbers. A map shows the incident's location and the parolee's proximity. Users can also search the Web site and, for example, find other parolees within 100 feet of the incident. They can also view photos of parolees.

But Moran cautioned that crime incident reporting is not always exact and just because a parolee was near a scene, it doesn't mean he or she committed a crime. The data the system generates is not considered prima facie evidence to convict someone, he said, and it's incumbent on law enforcement to investigate a case.

Moran said technology advances would likely come as the size of GPS devices reduce and the system's business intelligence improves. Many states and law enforcement agencies have expressed interest in the system, he added.

Eslinger said that funding might be one barrier for municipalities, but advocates say the system saves money. In Seminole County, it costs $48 a day to keep someone in jail. But judges there are requiring the criminals to pay for the system at about $6 a day. Eslinger said there has been 100 percent compliance so far, but if an individual is unable to pay, the county would utilize inmate welfare or trust funds.

But Eslinger said he has high hopes for the system.

"There's been really two significant advancements technology-wise: DNA, how dramatically that has changed our business; and utilization of AFIS, which is the Automated Fingerprint Identification System," said the 24-year law enforcement veteran. "But this, I think, is certainly the third that can change the way police police."

***

With VeriTracks, a parolee is outfitted with a tamper-resistant ankle bracelet electronically tethered to a Global Positioning System device the size of a cell-phone fastened to the individual's belt.

At the end of the day, the parolee places the device into a cradle that downloads data into the system, which is hosted by Veridian Corp. Parole officials can passively or actively monitor a parolee. With passive monitoring, officials view the data the next day. With active monitoring, a parolee's whereabouts can be viewed in real time, something that would be used only for high-risk offenders. But Veridian officials estimate only 10 percent would be monitored in this fashion.

According to Brian Moran, Veridian's program manager for VeriTracks, the device records an individual's latitude and longitude every minute. These track points appear as dots on a computerized map. A typical parolee, he said, records 1,400 track points per day.

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