GPS readied for tracking sex offenders
(Original Publication: April 23, 2005)

WHITE PLAINS Electronic monitoring of paroled felons has generated a lot of headlines lately. It began when domestic diva Martha Stewart donned an ankle bracelet after her release from federal prison and more recently last month, when a paroled sex offender in Florida was arrested in the killing of a 9-year-old girl, sparking legislation to require stricter monitoring of paroled sex offenders there.

But long before the recent developments, Westchester County's Department of Probation was quietly planning to take its 15-year-old electronic-monitoring system to the next level. Last year, the county put out bids for a Global Positioning System for satellite tracking of sex offenders, awarding a contract to a California company in January.

Assistant Commissioner Louis Conte said probation officers are training with the new equipment, and the program should be operational within a few months. The system involves 24-hour monitoring via satellite with hand-held computers that function as tracking devices and cell phones.

Probationers in the program will also have phones that do not dial out and an ankle bracelet specifically programmed to alert a probation officer if the offender goes anywhere he or she is not supposed to. If the probationer steps into what are called "exclusion zones," which can be tailored through software to each individual's court-mandated requirements, the probation officer receives an instant alert and can either call the person or go to the location to investigate.

The operating cost for the "active" system is roughly $8 per day per offender, Conte said, a few dollars more than the current "passive" system in which probationers download information from their monitors every day. The new system should free up time that probation officers spend sitting in front of a computer, Conte said.

"It's a significant investment, but we believe it's going to prove to be a worthwhile one," Conte said. "Obviously, it's not a fail-safe system, but it's certainly going to serve as a psychological deterrent to these guys, knowing that we can trace their every move, and it's certainly going to provide us with way more information than we have now."

While some civil libertarians consider such monitoring an abuse of governmental power through high-tech methods, Conte stressed that the GPS would be put in use only for the worst offenders and only after a judge has ordered it.

Charles Onley, a research associate with the U.S. Justice Department's Center for Sex Offender Management, cautioned that although the technology has improved, GPS provides only limited information. "Just because a probation officer knows where you are doesn't necessarily mean you can't be perpetrating a crime," Onley said.

"The advantage they do provide goes more toward helping an agency rule someone out as a suspect when a new crime is committed," Onley said. "The people under their supervision are generally the first people that get looked at in those situations."
Jill O'Neill, the assistant director for the county's office of Victim's Assistance Services, said she thought the new technology would help many crime victims feel more secure. "For both past and future victims, this will absolutely be a positive thing," O'Neill said.

"Peace of mind can be different for every victim, and each victim is going to experience trauma differently," said O'Neill. "I think knowing that officers will have direct phone contact and the ability to get there quickly will make a lot of victims feel safer."