May 14, 2008

GPS Helps Track Criminals

Although GPS technology has become popular among drivers who use the devices to map out their destinations, U.S. authorities are turning to GPS surveillance to monitor repeat offenders in hopes of stopping potential crime before it happens.

Authorities in different states across the country are expanding beyond GPS' earlier use to track sex offenders. Now, they can be used to track the movement of gang members on probation, people accused of violence against women, and even students who skip class often.

Massachusetts became one of the first states to use the technology in 2006 to track criminal activity. Now the state has about 700 people fitted with electronic bracelets that transmit their location, and send signals via satellite if they venture into a restricted area.

Other states, like Illinois and Oklahoma have used Massachusetts as an example, with hopes of employing similar systems.

The Oklahoma Senate voted 47-0 in April to enlist GPS technology to protect victims of domestic violence. The Illinois House of Representatives unanimously passed similar surveillance legislation last month.

Other countries are paying attention as well. Europe already uses GPS monitoring, but it's applied more narrowly, and the movement is growing in Latin America also, said Jeff Durski, spokesman for iSECUREtrac Corp.

Paul Lucci, deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Probation Service, said the movement to GPS monitoring has a lot to do with money.

"These people probably should be in jail but the cost of incarceration can be as much as $30,000 or $40,000 a year. The GPS costs about $3,400 a year," he said.

"I think it's good on both sides. It is a device to protect the public. Although we can't guarantee anyone's safety, it provides an extra level of supervision on somebody. On the other side, for a defense attorney, it is in lieu of incarceration," said Lucci.

The law in Massachusetts was inspired by Dorothy Cotter, who was shot and killed by her husband William, who had been ordered by a court to stay away from his wife due to a long history of domestic violence.

The devices alert police whenever an offender enters a restricted zone such as near a woman's home or office.

"It's more than just slapping a GPS on a guy. You have to really have an intelligent coordinated approach to it and then it really can save lives," said Diane Rosenfeld, a professor at Harvard Law School who helped draft the Massachusetts law.

Also, in a country with the world's highest rate of incarceration, some officials hope that GPS may be an answer to overcrowded prisons.

The number of people in U.S. prisons has risen eight-fold since 1970 to 2.2 million people -- nearly a fourth of the world's total, according to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group.

In rural Pitt County, North Carolina, officials decided to use the technology in 2005, and it has expanded into four more counties since then.

Pitt County's recidivism rate for domestic violence fell from 36 percent in 2004 to 14 percent this year, said Sgt. John Guard of local sheriff's domestic violence unit.

"It may help in the short term pre-trial. But post-trial, it's not. That tells me there are other things we have to do to ensure the safety of the victims," he said.

Barry Bryant, deputy director of the Governor's Crime Commission in North Carolina said it's uncertain whether GPS monitoring will save someone's life.

"It doesn't really guarantee much because the truth is it's real time. If someone has entered a zone where they shouldn't be, can you get there before they do something violent? I don't know. But it's an added measure of safety," he said.

Questions have also been raised about whose authority the GPS devices should fall under.

"This should be done by independent judicial officials, not by police officers whose job is to investigate, not to mete out justice," said Barry Steinhardt, head of the American Civil Liberties Union's technology program in Washington.

"You want to protect the victims of domestic violence but there has to be a fair process."


On the Net:

American Civil Liberties Union

iSECUREtrac Corp