The Pros and Cons of Using GPS to Track Offenders

April 5, 2018 Published by
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GPS technology has evolved a great deal since the U.S. Department of Defence officially launched the program in 1973, and has as a result greatly expanded beyond its original purpose. Once meant only for military use, the system has grown to become an everyday tool in both personal and professional circles for anyone with a smartphone and any number of other devices.

As systems improve, data becomes more accurate, and technology becomes increasingly accessible, its potential for abuse and previously unforeseen consequences grow. And one such concern has made itself more obvious than others in recent years: the better surveillance of American citizenry and its encroachment on rights to privacy.

The watchdogs of crime

GPS ankle bracelets have, in the past decade, become a routine element of our judicial systems, a common part of sentencing that regulates lesser lawbreakers to “house arrest” judgments. As films like 2007’s Disturbia have demonstrated, popular culture — and, with it, our collective understanding — have accepted the system as perhaps an inevitable step forward for technological growth. But should we?

A lifetime in the eye

Tracking bracelets are a fairly regular provision of release for criminal defendants who are out on bail or on probation. In Wisconsin, the concept is taken a step further: convicted sex offenders in the state are required to wear a monitor for life. While a 2006 law allows the technology be removed from those who have completed their prison term and finished 20 years of subsequent monitoring, those with prison terms and civil commitments under the Chapter 980 Sexually Violent Persons Law must keep it permanently. And that kind of long-term arrangement does not come without costs — some tangible, some not.

The practicalities of Big Brother

Over the last five years, the cost of Wisconsin’s GPS program for convicts and the number of offenders assigned to it have doubled. This comes despite a 2013 report by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism that documented a number of issues with the monitoring system: issues that have not been addressed since they were made public.

With over 1,000 offenders costing the state over $9 million per year, routine problems with false alerts, inefficient oversight, and unreliable technology are serious concerns and give way to the question if such an expansion of services is really the best approach.

The biggest snag in Wisconsin’s reliance on GPS is the fact that the technology just isn’t as ironclad as it should be, which relies on both cell phone and satellite service to track. A review of data from 2017 numbers revealed that, in one month alone, Wisconsin offenders generated more than 260,000 alerts: of these, over 56,000 were due to lost cell connections, while satellite signals generated over 32,000 additional notices. Within that same time period, nearly 200 requests for technical problems were submitted by the monitoring center.

This generates an enormous amount of data for responders to sift through and analyze to determine what need and need not be followed up on, made more difficult by the spottiness of cell service in rural areas and common malfunctions with the battery life of the bracelets, which can die very quickly and may take hours to charge back up.

Is it worth it?

Whether or not these hiccups are worth the effort is a matter of some debate, to say the least.

On the one hand, you have the deterring effect: proponents claim that the knowledge of being persistently observed reduces the chances of recidivism, gives the offenders an opportunity to work, and costs a great deal less than a lifetime of incarceration in already overcrowded prisons. It also gives communities better peace of mind, knowing that any convicted individuals living nearby come with more than a psychologist’s assurance that they “probably” won’t re-offend.

Studies have shown that electronic monitoring can help lower the number of returns to custody, but the fact that such programs are usually combined with other forms of parole and post-release treatment muddies any clear, quantitative results.

On the other hand, you have the many disruptions that faulty circuits put on both the offenders and the law enforcement tasked with watching them. It can be difficult for one to reintegrate back into society if you could at any moment be arrested and held for up to three days, simply because your bracelet experienced a glitch beyond your control. Even if you’re ultimately not to blame, the time it takes for the DOC to check your story and its own equipment is enough to lose you a job and reliable housing.

There’s also the strain that this puts on the local officials tasked with bringing in offenders who trigger a warning: a process that can take days or even weeks of searching if the individual is living outside the city or homeless, which is another issue that up to 10% of all sex offenders in the state must contend with due to strict housing laws and leery renters. That means that a lot of time and effort is being put into locking up people who ultimately don’t need to be, diverting resources from more valuable concerns.

Other sources suggest that long-term tracking constitutes an overly severe punishment that reneges on individuals’ personal freedoms, further preventing them from any kind of legitimate rehabilitation.

Where do we draw the line? Should we?

So, what’s the right solution here? It’s a matter that poses some very tricky questions. When does invasiveness finally cross the line into being too much? What privacies are we willing to sacrifice for the promise of safety? Consider a 2014 incident in which Google’s scanning of personal emails led to the arrest of a man possessing child pornography. Are we meant to be grateful for Google’s meddling, or outraged at its snooping? Is it a system worth utilizing even if it’s imperfect, so long as it means that some crimes are being stopped? Sure, the above story illustrates a “best case” kind of scenario; but for every instance that proves the usefulness of digital peeking, there’s one of mismanagement that negatively impacts the lives of innocent people, such as the Arizona couple who temporarily lost custody of their children after Walmart flagged some bathtime photos as illegal material.

There’s a moral consideration here, too. Do offenders — especially those convicted of sexually based offenses — deserve an opportunity to “move on” and live a “normal” life at all? Is a lifetime of monitoring and the consequences of such a thing unfair, or a deserved punishment? Perhaps it isn’t enough of one in the first place?

There aren’t any easy answers here, and that’s the price that comes with ever-growing technology: convenience and utility that is at once useful and dangerous. As GPS continues to improve, guidelines and limitations will have to be continually redrawn and reconsidered to manage it: a task that everyone — lawmakers, law enforcers, voters — will have to be ready to tackle.

What do you think? Is state law taking things too far? Not far enough? Is it just fine where it is? Let us know in the comments below!

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