Technology Tackles Troublemakers as the War on Crime Heats Up

By Jim Stark

GPS Tracking is the Wave of the Future for Law Enforcement Authorities

He has been on the run for over a year. Hiding in caves, mountaintops, and countrysides, Osama Bin Laden is America's most wanted.As U.S.military forces vigilantly track and monitor his every move to try to capture him and his henchmen, arguably the most effective weapon in their arsenal is global positioning systems, more commonly known as GPS.These devices, equipped with a transmitter and receiver, work in tandem with aerial satellites to determine the pinpoint location of Al Qaeda forces in the war on terrorism.GPS military products have been very successful over the last year in helping to hunt down and capture many terrorists, snatching them from what they thought were "safe havens."

The U.S.military invented GPS during the Cold War to mobilize troops and missiles.These electronic products are so resourceful that they're also being implemented here at home for other "enemies of the state": convicted criminals.For years, U.S.correctional authorities have used house arrest devices in the war on crime to keep tabs on people who have committed non-violent, low level crimes (often times white collar).
Take for example famed baseball player Darryl Strawberry.He has committed numerous crimes with the law and in September of 2000, after pleading guilty to driving while impaired, and leaving the scene of an accident, Strawberry was sentenced to two years' house arrest rather than jail time.While it might make sense to keep someone like the former slugger impounded at his house, what's to stop him from leaving his home in pursuit of that next illegal adventure? Isn't this ability to leave his house without oversight a little too lax?

Correctional experts have been concerned with this issue for sometime and are taking corrective action.Now, authorities are buying and installing these monitoring and tracking devices that utilize GPS tracking technology because they can watch over people inside, as well as outside the home, making them more effective than house arrest devices and improving public safety.

For years, the U.S.has been behind in the development of new prisons.As crime continued to outpace new prison construction, authorities had to develop alternative ways to punish, deter, control, and rehabilitate criminal offenders, while at the same time being pragmatic regarding manpower, budget, and prison space.Over time, electronic monitoring devices were created - the first form was house arrest.People who committed a non-violent crime were often given house arrest to free up space for the more deadly and dangerous criminal.While house arrest was effective as a starting point, it didn't go far enough because many people were leaving their house and committing crimes, and authorities had no means to track them.

Furthermore, to help relieve the overcrowding problem, parole was also used for dangerous criminals such as pedophiles.Given their past record, and to increase public safety, authorities have now determined that many pedophiles - and other people with a violent track records - are just too dangerous to be left alone. Parole officers are supposed to physically check on parolees, but they're drastically overworked and have more of a caseload than they can handle. With the advent of GPS tracking systems, officers have been given the ability to monitor someone's movement 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Subjects under GPS tracking and monitoring wear a removable personal tracking unit (PTU) and a non-removable wireless ankle cuff. The ankle cuff is the size of a large wristwatch. The cuff communicates with the PTU to ensure that both items are always within a close and specific proximity of each other.If communication with the cuff is lost, the PTU assumes that the user has abandoned it and a violation is recorded.The PTU acquires its location from the Department of Defense's GPS satellites, and records this time and location into an Internet-based database system.

This information is communicated back to probation, parole, bonding, and court officials.Using a Web browser, authorities are able to look at a detailed map to determine where the person has been.If a violation is detected, that is, if a person was in a place where they were excluded from being, authorities can take action.For instance, a pedophile might be ordered by a court to stay away from schools and the GPS tracking system would indicate if this were being abided.When a crime is committed, law enforcement can also analyze the data from GPS tracking to see if a known criminal was in the general vicinity.

Recently, a business associate in the criminal justice field tried one of the new GPS tracking and monitoring devices on himself.He tells the story about driving up his street on the way home, parking his car, walking in the alley by his house, and entering his garage, while wearing the unit.He said the system tracked every one of these movements with total precision.Updates of his exact city location were shown every 10 seconds.His perspective was that the new GPS tracking systems have made the older house arrest systems obsolete, has made the punishment guidelines at home more stringent, and that court systems should seriously evaluate this new technology.

The equation is simple: the more non-violent offenders that are plucked from detention and put on GPS tracking, the more violent offenders can be locked up and controlled by prisons. Moreover, GPS tracking enables probation and parole officers to keep closer tabs on those parolees, who have committed a more heinous crime and pose a greater danger to society.

Candidates for GPS tracking include people at the pre-trial stage (rather than go to jail or get released on their own recognizance, they are sent home with a device), someone on probation, and someone freed on parole.Other users might include people being released to a halfway house or furloughs.Specifically, authorities have tagged sex offenders, INS visa violators, people under restraining orders, and early release inmates as prime candidates.

The largest group of individuals who can benefit from GPS tracking systems is the non-violent offender whose detention in prison will only worsen their economic and social situation. For example, a person who has been convicted of a non-violent crime and who is a full-time employee and full-time parent.Sending this individual to prison would cause a loss of employment, reduction in taxes, increase in correctional spending, and deterioration in their family structure. Granted, this person broke the law and deserves some form of punishment, but prison does not rehabilitate offenders, it is simply a warehouse to remove individuals from society.With GPS tracking, these non-violent offenders can remain employed, continue to pay taxes, and maintain their status as a family member, while at the same time being punished by the restriction in movement.

According to a 2001 report issued by the American Correctional Association regarding 1999 statistics, 22,192 people were under electronic monitoring for either probation or parole. With more than six million people in the nation's correctional system, states continue to look for alternative methods.

Some states with budget crises such as North Carolina have used electronic monitoring in the past (in lieu of prison time due to overcrowding) but are now considering eliminating them due to budget shortfalls.No prison time and no electronic monitoring could very well lead to more crime.While imprisonment costs thousands of dollars per month, the cost for GPS tracking per person is significantly lower, about one-tenth the cost.

It is not uncommon for any new technology to be met with resistance from the masses; GPS-based tracking and monitoring is no exception.Some people believe that these devices encroach on civil liberties but in fact, no one actually becomes a "customer" of these devices unless they agree to the program.Of course, since their alternative is incarceration, many would opt for GPS tracking.

Other opponents state that this restriction is not punitive enough.On one hand, they're correct.It certainly is not as tough as being incarcerated.However, looking at this from a macro-societal level, the public is much safer because more violent and dangerous criminals are locked up behind bars due to the "extra" cells freed up by non-violents. In addition, many psychologists have done research that indicates that non-violents, who serve prison time, often become "hardened" and more violent upon leaving prison.

A third issue that is debated is the deterrence factor.People being monitored 24/7 know that if they do commit a crime the odds of them being detected due to time and location monitoring are very high.If they were to try to leave the monitoring system at home to commit a crime, law enforcement would receive this data and could investigate this person.

A fourth point under consideration is the court systems.As it currently stands, the courts are looking to use existing house arrest systems due to shrinking budgets and house arrest product inventory.However, as outlined, house arrest devices are obsolete due to their limited tracking capabilities.

At this time, 27 U.S.states have departments and agencies that are beginning to use GPS tracking technology. Experts believe that the GPS tracking units will be dispersed at a faster rate over the next couple of years throughout most states.

Regarding other applications, one key area for GPS tracking solutions is in the area of people tracking. The U.S.has had a rash of children abductions and GPS tracking could be used to help locate the victims.The technology is also being deployed or developed for other applications such as cell phones for 911 calls, INS violations, ATMs, golf courses, hikers, and fish finders.For years, GPS tracking has been used in commonly known applications for cars such as stolen vehicle tracking, and navigational mapping for directions.

Jim Stark is the president and chief financial officer of iSECUREtrac Corp, a public corporation.He is an expert on the issues surrounding GPS electronic monitoring and tracking in support of improving criminal justice and public safety.

Published Thursday, February 6th, 2003

Written by Jim Stark

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