UC Berkeley's Behind Bars

California leads the country in GPS supervision. The article below explores how California law enforcement is increasingly relying on the technology. Watch the accompanying video to find out what happened when reporter Jude Joffe-Block was strapped with a GPS ankle bracelet.

State of Surveillance: California’s Growing Use of GPS

Law enforcement agencies across the country are using GPS technology more and more to probationers and parolees. But nowhere in the nation is the technology more prevalent than in California, where use of GPS ankle bracelets is expanding.

The number of Californians tracked on GPS monitors jumped after voters approved Proposition 83—a 2006 ballot initiative also known as “Jessica’s Law” that mandated lifetime GPS monitoring for convicted sex offenders released from prison. As a result, three years later parole authorities implemented GPS monitoring of all of the state’s roughly 6,500 paroled sex offenders—the largest population tracked in the U.S. After the initiative passed, more county probation offices across the state also invested in GPS units.

Parole agents can use the bracelets to monitor whether individuals are complying with home curfews, mandatory treatment programs, or staying away from restricted zones, such as a victim’s home or places where children congregate. They can also use the technology to determine an individual’s current location or review their movements over a certain period of time.

“California has been ahead of the curve using these mechanisms,” said University of California Hastings College of the Law professor, Hadar Aviram. “Particularly with its decision to monitor all registered sex offenders using GPS.”

While sex offender supervision initially drove California’s GPS trend, law enforcement agencies across the state are beginning to use electronic monitoring to track other kinds of offenders and as an alternative to incarceration.

At the start of the year, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began expanding its use of GPS supervision to track the most dangerous gang members on parole. So far, about 800 gang members are tracked across the state and the department says 200 more will be added in the coming months.

Stanislaus County in the Central Valley originally acquired 20 bracelets from GPS vendor B.I. Incorporated at a cost of $8.70 a day each to comply with sex offender supervision requirements. Now the county uses the technology to help enforce a gang injunction against Norteño gang members in a southern Modesto neighborhood.

“It became clear to me very quickly that the technology shouldn’t be limited to just sex offenders,” said Stanislaus County Chief Probation Officer, Jerry Powers. “And frankly, the technology might not be best utilized by sex offenders. It might be better utilized by other offenders.”

Since the gang injunction prevents named gang members from associating or being out past 10 p.m. in a certain Modesto neighborhood, probation officers can use GPS data to check whether probationers are compliant and send violators to jail.

Powers says GPS monitoring works well when geography plays into offenders’ criminal activity, such as is the case with gangs or domestic violence cases with restraining orders in place. In contrast, he said, GPS data is not as likely to reveal clues about whether or not a sex offender is reoffending.

Putting GPS devices on gang members can also provide law enforcement with additional insights into how the gang operates.

“It is kind of like a second pair of eyes for us,” said Froilan Mariscal, a criminal investigator with the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s office.

“The stigma of having the GPS on them made them persona non grata with their gang friends,” said Powers. “If they were there, that meant that we knew that they were there.”

Some police and sheriff’s departments have formed partnerships with parole that allow the agencies to tap into the GPS software to find out if a parolee with an ankle bracelet was at the scene of an unsolved local crime.

“That has helped us make some arrests,” said Kurt Smith, Crime Analysis Manager at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. “It has helped us prove who potential suspects were.”

Some agencies are looking to GPS and other forms of electronic monitoring as a solution to overcrowded jails and prisons.

California parole authorities are piloting a program that uses electronic monitoring to place parole violators on home arrest, instead of sending than send them back to prison. With the technology, parole agents will know when parolees are inside their homes and when they are not.

UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman says expanding this form of so-called “virtual incarceration” is the answer to California’s prison crisis.

Kleiman says that if the supervision on an offender in his own home is sufficiently strict, “You can fully punish him for what he did in the past and prevent him from what he might do in the future—without paying his room and board bill.”

Kurt Smith at the San Diego County Sheriff’s office said his department is researching how it might possibly use GPS technology as an alternative to jail in the future. “Is there justice in sentencing that includes GPS monitoring rather than incarceration?” Smith asked. “That is the question we have.”

Despite the growth in use of the technology, corrections leaders are still quick to point out that law enforcement’s use of the technology is still at a formative stage.

“The GPS as a supervision tool is an ever-evolving new technology,” said Scott Kernan, undersecretary for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

So far, the state’s prominent sex offender supervision program has not been without controversy. The program drew criticism after it was revealed that parole agents did not review the movements of sex offenders enlisted on the state’s “passive” GPS monitoring program for sex offenders classified as low risk offenders. Phillip Garrido, the man who is accused of kidnapping Jaycee Lee Dugard and holding her prisoner for 18 years, was outfitted with a GPS ankle bracelet in 2008, but wasn’t closely watched. While convicted child molester John Gardner wore a GPS bracelet, he violated his parole numerous times, but the transgressions went undetected. Less than a year and a half after he was released from parole, he raped and murdered two teenage girls.

Parole authorities have convened a taskforce of experts this summer to revise the protocols for how parole officers utilize GPS data to make sex offender supervision more effective.

Dave DeGeorge of Satellite Tracking of People, a GPS vendor that holds several contracts in California, says while GPS is a valuable tool, the public should not expect the technology to stop a determined offender from committing new crimes.

“It is not a silver bullet,” said DeGeorge. “It is not going to prevent crime. I want to make sure that everyone in this ballpark understands what it can and can’t do.”


Production by Helene Goupil and Jude Joffe-Block
Videography by Armand Emamdjomeh, Helene Goupil, Jude Joffe-Block and Guilherme Kfouri
Story by Jude Joffe-Block

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