Updated March, 2012
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
In Washington, D.C. offenders on community supervision—probation, parole, or supervised release—face an impediment to criminal activity and non-compliance: GPS tracking, which monitors the individual’s whereabouts 24 hours per day.
This article summarizes the effort in the nation’s capital and offers a brief overview of national GPS research.
The Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), the federal agency that supervises D.C. Superior Court sentenced offenders in the nation’s capital, has been using GPS since April 2003. About 600 offenders are currently in the program. The numbers will change to respond to new initiatives or requests from law enforcement partners.
“GPS is a wonderful tool to help protect society,” states Carlton Butler, Program Administrator of the unit that oversees CSOSA’s GPS program. “We share our GPS technology with law enforcement agencies in D.C and throughout the metropolitan area. They have the ability to track any of our offenders via their own computers and see if they can place them in the vicinity of a crime scene, which they do numerous times throughout the week.”
“The use of GPS Technology is not a panacea and will not replace good old one-on-one interaction data exchange by the supervision officer and/or the traditional law enforcement investigation techniques, but it is another helpful tool to assist in supervision and crime fighting,” stated Butler.
CSOSA supervises about 16,000 offenders, half of whom are in treatment or on a specialized high-contact caseload. The agency emphasizes evidence-based practices in case management; GPS is just one of the strategies it employs to promote compliance.
It is typically employed as a sanction for non-compliance among high-risk offenders and those with specific geographic limitations (such as stay-away orders). It is also used to monitor high-risk offenders who refuse to maintain or actively seek employment.
“In addition to sex offenders, we place high risk and domestic violence offenders on GPS,” says Thomas H. Williams, Associate Director for Community Supervision Services at CSOSA. “In the past, a domestic violence offender could stalk a victim without our knowing it. Now we know and can notify both the victim and our law enforcement partners and take swift and certain action in conjunction with the courts or parole commission.”
GPS can greatly increase Community Supervision Officers’ (CSO’s) ability to protect the public. The following case illustrates how quickly GPS data can make a difference.
Local news in Washington, D.C. reported a string of assaults on teenage girls in a particular neighborhood. Police provided a sketch of the suspect to the media in order to solicit the public’s assistance with the investigation.
An alert CSO saw the sketch on the news broadcast and recognized the subject as a high-risk parolee on GPS. She immediately checked the individual’s whereabouts at the times of the assaults and placed him at the crime scenes. She visited his home to verify that his car matched the description of the vehicle used in the crimes. She then arranged for the man to come into her office, where he was arrested by Metropolitan Police Department officers. CSOSA works closely with the United States Attorney’s Office, wherein a conviction was achieved.
An Enormous Responsibility
Implementing GPS tracking places an enormous responsibility on any agency. While CSOSA has stringent contact standards, requiring eight contacts per month for offenders at the highest risk levels (even more contacts are possible for drug testing and treatment programs) GPS provides a great deal of additional information on each offender. Learning to interpret and respond to that information is a challenge for even the most experienced CSOs.
Generally, the Community Supervision Officer will review daily reports provided by the vendor: (1) a daily summary on each offender indicating whether the GPS unit transmitted appropriately and whether the offender remained in compliance with location parameters the CSO had previously defined, and (2) an incident hit report, which details whether offenders on GPS were in the vicinity of crime locations reported by the Metropolitan Police Department and other law enforcement agencies.
The CSO can also review the actual tracking data, which shows the offender’s movements through the city. For some types of offenders, including sex offenders, daily review of the tracking report is a must.
Paul Brennan, a Supervisory Community Supervision Officer for one of CSOSA’s sex offender teams, demonstrates his ability to interpret the tracking report. He pulls up the report, which follows the movements of a particular sex offender on the previous day. With a few keystrokes, Brennan lays a detailed map of the city over the tracking report.
For an even higher level of detail, he superimposes satellite images from Google Earth over the offender’s movements. Suddenly, a daycare center with a playground appears in the offender’s path. Brennan now has a good idea why that sex offender has been loitering in the area. He and his team also share intelligence with the police and use it to inform their own surveillance and case management activities.
“We use polygraph tests, GPS, drug testing, surveillance and other forms of human and technological intelligence with our sex offenders, but we are only as good as our ability to interpret and react to the data we get,” Brennan says. “We are not perfect, and offenders will test the capabilities of the system, but we have some of the best tools in the country to provide accountability while getting offenders into programs they need.”
Offenders try to “get around” GPS in a variety of ways—some as simple as failing to charge the unit or attempting to cut it off. One of the ways that GPS is tamper-resistant is “double” monitoring; the offender is tracked not just by satellite but by cell phone towers as well. GPS transmission may be hampered in large buildings or homes, but supplemental devices can be placed in those buildings to continue transmission.
GPS tracking is poised to play a significant role in the system’s ability to protect society and place and keep offenders in programs. The use of this technology will likely grow significantly in coming years.
The ability to track an offender every minute of every day provides new opportunities and challenges for the criminal justice system. Criminological research has consistently emphasized the importance of immediate response to violations for those under supervision.
The nationwide adoption of intermediate sanctions (i.e., increased reporting or drug testing, community service, treatment programs, day reporting, halfway back measures or brief periods of incarceration) to respond to violations requires agencies to be in frequent contact with the offender if sanctions are to be imposed effectively.
GPS increases officers’ awareness of potential violations. The offender’s non-compliance with GPS—attempting to tamper with the device or the signal—also constitutes a serious violation in itself.
One of the few evaluations that include both GPS and radio frequency monitoring was completed in 2006 by Florida State University’s College of Criminology and Criminal Justice. The study (“Under Surveillance: An Empirical Test of the Effectiveness and Consequences of Electronic Monitoring”) concludes that electronic monitoring has produced promising results:
“Overall, Florida’s program is found to provide an effective public safety alternative to prison for serious offenders, including those convicted of murder/manslaughter, sex offenses, robbery, and other violent offenses…Our findings indicate that electronic monitoring actually reduces the likelihood of revocation for a technical violation for offenders on home confinement. More importantly, electronic monitoring also reduces the likelihood of revocation for a new offense [emphasis added] and the likelihood of absconding which demonstrates a positive effect on public safety.”
The authors conclude: “…it appears likely that the use of electronic monitoring devices will increase dramatically in the very near future.”
A new study (“A Quantitative and Qualitative Assessment of Electronic Monitoring”) was offered by the Florida State University in January of 2010. It provides the latest update of previous studies using GPS and other forms of electronic monitoring.
The report indicates, “The balance of evidence from these studies shows that EM is effective in reducing supervision failure rates, as measured in a variety of ways.”
Researchers examined 5,034 medium- and high-risk offenders on EM and 266,991 offenders not placed on EM over a six year period plus interviews with staff and offenders. Selected findings include:
- EM reduces the likelihood of failure under community supervision. The reduction in the risk of failure is about 31%, relative to offenders placed on other forms of community supervision.
- EM allows offenders to remain in the community thereby promoting family ties.
- EM supervision has less of an impact on violent offenders than on sex, drug, property, and other types of offenders, although there are significant reductions in the hazard rate for all of these offense types.
- There are no major differences in the effects of EM supervision across different age groups.
- There were no major differences in the effects of EM for different types of supervision.
- Approximately 1 in 3 EM offenders would have served time in prison if not for the electronic surveillance option available to the courts.
Improved Public Safety
GPS is a useful tool in community supervision but, “It’s not foolproof,” Paul Brennan says. “Nothing’s foolproof. If people want ironclad guarantees that the offender will not commit additional crimes in the community, their only alternative is incarceration.”
Despite its limitations, however, GPS helps CSOSA achieve its goal of protecting the public through effective community supervision. “We can provide the citizens of the metropolitan area with improved public safety,” says Thomas Williams. Because of its contribution to the bottom line, GPS will continue to be part of CSOSA’s supervision strategy.