UC Berkeley's Behind Bars

Tracking sex offenders is no easy fix

Parole agents in Vallejo look through parolee Ryan Scurlock's belongings before sending him to an out-patient drug treatment program. Photo by Helene Goupil

Less than two years ago, California completed the ambitious step of outfitting each of the state’s roughly 6,500 paroled sex offenders with Global Positioning System ankle bracelets, making them the largest population tracked by GPS in the country. But shortcomings with the program suggest the state may not be equipped to manage data from such a large cohort.

California will spend $60 million this year to track parolees convicted of sex crimes, such as rape, sexual assault, child molestation and indecent exposure. With GPS, parole agents can instantly locate parolees, receive alerts in real time when they miss curfew or go somewhere forbidden, and review parolees’ movements—known as “running tracks.”

However, recent assessments portray a system that ignores much of the data captured by GPS monitors and parole agents overwhelmed with responsibilities.

“We are just drowning in dots,” said Robert Coombs, chair of the state Sex Offender Management Board, referring to the way parolees’ tracks appear on agents’ mapping software. “What happens is the more broadly we use it, the more difficult it becomes in identifying the meaningful data.”

Every time a bracelet’s battery charge is low or a parolee enters into an off-limits zone, agents receive cell phone and e-mail alerts—regardless of whether the action requires an immediate response. The state’s 274 parole agents on GPS caseloads received almost a million of these alerts last year, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

What that means for North Bay parole agent Donovan Lewis is that his workday never ends. “With GPS, it makes it 24-7 because we get alerts,” he said.

State policies for supervising paroled sex offenders became a topic of public scrutiny after two convicted sex offenders were charged with high-profile crimes in the last year.

Earlier this month, the state awarded a $20 million settlement to Jaycee Lee Dugard, 30, and her two daughters, for failing to supervise sex offender Phillip Garrido. He was on parole for a 1977 rape and kidnapping conviction while he allegedly held Dugard in a secret compound behind his Antioch home.

And last spring, there was outrage when the public learned that convicted sex offender John Gardner raped and murdered two San Diego teenagers. Although Gardner was not on parole at the time, he had previously worn a GPS bracelet that recorded numerous parole violations. So had Garrido. Such transgressions could have prompted parole agents to send the men back to prison or scrutinize their routines, but because both men were classified as low-risk offenders, the protocol at the time did not require agents to review the GPS data.

Parole agents Donovan Lewis and Ricardo Bautista look up a parolee's whereabouts. Photo by Armand Emamdjomeh.

Parole authorities updated the GPS monitoring protocol in March so agents now review daily the tracks of the one third of parolees classified as “high risk” and the remaining parolees’ movements four days a month.

But in a June report, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Office of Inspector General criticized the updated protocol as “deficient.” “We found that in a number of situations, there were some missed opportunities to discover what parolee sex offenders were up to,” said Inspector General David Shaw. “There is an expectation from the public that this is something we are going to use as a state to keep them safer. We should be getting our money’s worth out of it.”

Parole officer’s union president Melinda Silva said agents with GPS duties are already stretched thin and have little time for fieldwork. “There is too much rote, busy work with the track runs,” she wrote in an e-mail.

In response, the state’s corrections department has convened a taskforce that will meet this summer to determine how to monitor sex offenders more efficiently. “The GPS as a supervision tool is an ever-evolving new technology,” said Scott Kernan, undersecretary for the department.

Among suggestions the taskforce will consider are ranking GPS alerts by urgency, reviewing data in batches and prioritizing resources on the highest risk parolees.

California’s use of GPS took off in 2006 when voters passed Jessica’s Law, which requires all sex offenders released from prison to be monitored for life. Since 2009, corrections has tracked all sex offender parolees with GPS. But Jessica’s Law failed to assign responsibility or resources for lifetime monitoring, so once discharged from parole, sex offenders are no longer tracked. Three quarters of California’s more than 65,000 registered sex offenders live in the community unsupervised.

Despite its demands, parole agent Donovan Lewis was quick to praise GPS technology, which he said has helped him prevent crimes. “With that tool, you know where they are,” he said. “You can pop up and do a surprise visit.”

Lewis and his partner, Ricardo Bautista, are among the approximately 30 parole agents monitoring some 980 paroled sex offenders in the Bay Area.

During a June parole sweep, Lewis, Bautista and three colleagues paid a surprise visit to Ryan Scurlock, 29, a homeless parolee convicted in 2002 of a sex offense against a woman he says was his girlfriend. After a second stint in prison for a drug crime, Scurlock was given an ankle bracelet in 2008 because of his earlier offense. He has cycled between prison and parole ever since for drug use.

From a laptop in his car, Bautista determined Scurlock was walking in Vallejo near the highway underpass where he camps out. A gray oblong-shaped GPS device was visible on his ankle. He said his GPS tracks show he isn’t bothering anyone. “I just really honestly keep to myself,” he said.

However, during the visit, the agents determined Scurlock was on methamphetamines and brought him to a substance abuse program. Parole agents are quick to point out that GPS can determine parolees’ whereabouts, but it won’t reveal what they are doing.

“You have to really get out there and do the footwork,” said Lewis.

While GPS data can arm law enforcement with the necessary evidence to send parolees back to prison if they violate parole or reoffend, there are no reliable studies to date concluding that the technology is effective at preventing crime.

“I think that people see technology as the silver bullet,” said Jack Wallace, coordinator of the state Sex Offender Management Board. “While being helpful, we still have a long ways to go.”


Reporting by Jude Joffe-Block
Photography by Armand Emamdjomeh and Helene Goupil