Electronic Tether

GPS monitoring surfaces as the latest tool to track sex offenders.

by / February 2, 2006
Seth Chamberlin, 25, had a penchant for hanging around high-school and college campuses and exposing himself to girls and young women. Now Chamberlin has the distinction of being the first offender nabbed in a California pilot that tracks high-risk sex offenders with GPS monitors.

Chamberlin was back in jail last fall -- he has served time for four similar offenses since 1998 -- after a GPS device attached to his ankle revealed that Chamberlin violated his parole by coming within 100 feet of a Southern California high school and spending time on campus at University of Redlands.

California's two-year, state-sponsored GPS program began in July 2005, and is among several initiatives around the country using satellite monitoring technology to track convicted sex offenders. It's a movement that picked up steam after pedophile John Couey kidnapped, raped and killed 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in Florida.

Couey was a convicted sex offender, and was required to register as such by Florida law and provide a current address. He didn't. And in essence, he was free to roam northern Florida and attack Lunsford. Police finally located him in Georgia a month after the abduction.

The episode, and the resulting fallout, prompted the Florida Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush to pass the Jessica Lunsford Act, a law that increased sentences and authorized the spending of about $7 million to cover the mandatory GPS monitoring of sex offenders.

It turned out that Couey was among about 1,800 of the 30,000 or so registered sex offenders in the state who failed to provide location information to the state as required, and have essentially vanished, according to a Miami Herald report.

And the problem is not unique to Florida.

Information Control
John LaFond, recently retired law professor from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and author of the book Preventing Sexual Violence, said states generally deal with sex offenders in one of two ways: sentencing a first- or second-time offender to long prison terms, or releasing them after a shorter sentence with few requirements. The latter is the prevailing choice, because of cost and because society has decided the majority of these offenders deserve a second chance.

"We subject them to what I call 'information control,'" LaFond said. "They may have to register and we may give notification to the community that they're there, but for the most part, the state washes its hands of any duty to effectively monitor dangerous sex offenders in the community."

Most states require sex offenders to register, but LaFond said the registration of sex offenders is a hit-or-miss proposition because it does nothing to keep track of offenders if they want to disappear, and it's replete with errors. An offender will often move, and his former address, now occupied by somebody else, remains listed as the home of a sex offender. In addition, at least 20 percent of sex offenders don't register, according to LaFond and former Utah CIO Phil Windley.

"We're not really tracking the person," Windley said. "We're tracking the location."

That leaves GPS monitoring as the latest, promising tool against the perceived dangers, according to Kim English, director of Colorado's Office of Research and Statistics within the Division of Criminal Justice.

"What happens with sex offenders is there's a new solution to the problem about every six months," English said. "It's community notification; it's law enforcement registration; it's DNA testing; and right now, it's GPS monitoring."

Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, California, Colorado and Florida are deploying GPS technology as part of a strategy to better monitor sex offenders.

Florida has used GPS monitoring of parolees (not just sex offenders) since 1998, but has now taken on the task of monitoring some sex offenders for life.

The GPS devices are generally two-piece instruments that include an ankle bracelet transmitter that acts as an electronic "tether" to a portable device, either worn on a waist pack or carried by hand. The transmitter is around 3 inches long and about an inch and a half wide. Florida has contracts with three vendors of GPS devices -- (Pro Tech, G4S Justice Services and iSecure) -- and the state pays anywhere from $6 to $9 per day for each device, depending on the vendor.

Florida uses "active" GPS for some of its highest-risk offenders. Active GPS provides near-real-time monitoring of an offender and will sound an alarm that can be triggered by any number of situations. The device can be programmed from a remote computer to create exclusion zones, such as schools and day-care centers, from which the offender is forbidden to enter. Should he enter an exclusion zone, the device sends an alarm message in the form of a fax, e-mail or page to a designated officer available around the clock.

In Florida, an alarm is sent should the offender stray too far from the electronic tether, or if he tries to disable the GPS device, leaves home, goes home when he's not supposed to, or takes a different route to work.

"We have somebody that's designated 24 hours a day to be on call and monitor these offenders," said Shawn Satterfield, program administrator for the Florida Department of Corrections' Bureau of Probation and Parole Field Services. "The whole system is automated, so it's not like somebody is sitting in a monitoring center waiting for something to happen and then clicking a button."

Satterfield said the alarms are sent out immediately, but there is a delay of about the time it would take to make a phone call to receive the alarm.

The monitoring program, however, means more work for probation and parole officers, who must keep track of data on all the sex offenders.

"Officers have to be on call," Satterfield said. "You have to have a lot of manpower for that. They spend a lot of time reviewing offenders' tracking location data."

Active GPS is used on the most serious (usually violent) offenders and "passive" GPS is used on lower-risk offenders. In Florida, a judge decides the nature of the GPS monitoring based on an offender's history and propensity for reoffending.

With passive GPS, the offender carries the device with him when he's away from his residence. When he's at home, he puts the device in a bay station that downloads information through a phone line. Supervising officers can check the offender's whereabouts the following day.

LaFond said most of the locator technology used today is of the passive variety. "It tends to be much more the curfew stuff -- are you coming home at night and going to your job?"

There isn't a large body of data to support the idea that GPS monitoring deters future crime, but there is no evidence to suggest it doesn't. "It's hard to say," Satterfield said. "We do have some research out there that shows that offenders on electronic monitoring, on active GPS equipment, commit fewer crimes."

In 2004, Florida produced its latest completed research compiled with data from 2001 to 2002. It suggested that parolees fitted with the devices were less likely to commit new crimes than those who were monitored by traditional means. Statistics showed that the corrections department revoked the community release of 31 percent of GPS-monitored offenders because of bad behavior, but had to revoke the release of 44 percent of those monitored by other means. Six percent of offenders monitored by GPS committed new felonies or misdemeanors, and 11 percent of those not electronically monitored committed new crimes.

Officials of the Florida Department of Corrections said work was slated to begin in December 2005 on a new study that will compile data from 2003 and 2004.

That doesn't mean a GPS monitor strapped to the ankle of a sex offender is protecting society.

"It's a great tool that our officers can use to supervise these offenders," Satterfield said. "It provides you with a wealth of information, but you have to have people and procedures in place to monitor that information."

The GPS Tool Box
Colorado's Department of Corrections uses GPS as a function of its community containment approach, a model for lifetime monitoring of sex offenders. The idea behind it is to dissuade individuals from acting on impulses, and keep offenders out of situations that may trigger those impulses. It includes treatment, polygraph testing and GPS monitoring, which began in 2001.

"The containment approach, in general, talks about using a tool box full of different ways of giving offenders the kind of structure and support that they need to succeed on the outside," English said. "The core components of the containment approach are very, very intense treatment combined with intense supervision and polygraph testing, everywhere from every month for high-risk offenders to every six months."

Sexual offenses are often crimes of opportunity. An offender might have a sexual preference for children, but that doesn't mean he or she will not harm adults. That's why the polygraph is important -- to understand the thoughts of the individual. And that's why GPS is important -- to limit the opportunity.

"At least half of incest perpetrators also molest children outside of the family," English said. "So the idea that we have incest perpetrators, child molesters, pedophiles and adult rapists -- these categories are not all that clear. If I'm an alcoholic and I like gin, but if all you've got is beer, I'll go ahead and have a beer."

The polygraph might inquire about the individual's recent fantasies and thoughts, or may ask outright: Have you violated your conditions of parole, had any sexual contact or harmed anybody since the last test? The polygraph also can reveal age of onset -- the first signs of the deviant behavior -- which is a huge predictor of risk and type of victims.

"We try to identify those opportunities that offenders somehow manage to manifest in their lives and limit their access to victims," English said. "So you really contain the opportunities, and offer them structure and support to live a law-abiding life."

It's not uncommon to find that offenders are trying to hide and maintain their "secret life," and the polygraph reveals that. It also can yield evidence that an individual is too dangerous to be left alone. "It happens all the time," English said. "Most of the time we're finding scores of additional victims over the lifetime of the offender. Everybody looks a whole lot more risky when you've got the polygraph because official record data is incredibly underreported."

Therapy helps offenders understand how to control their urges, but the polygraph and GPS monitoring are important to catch them when they lose control, English said. "Offenders will tell you a little bit while in therapy, but they don't tell you the whole kit and caboodle. They keep their favorite stuff to themselves. They hate the polygraph."

Using the polygraph on California sex offender Chamberlin might have revealed that after five days of being monitored with GPS, his urges finally got the best of him -- but luckily he was caught before harming anyone.

"I firmly believe that with Chamberlin, the first five days that he didn't go on campus while he was wearing his GPS unit, the GPS unit was preventing him from going on campus," said Kurt Smith of the Redlands Police Department Community Analysis Unit that was monitoring Chamberlin. "He just reached his personal threshold and decided he would take his chances on getting caught."

Chamberlin was deterred for just five days. The message there might be that GPS alone won't stop a crime from happening.

LaFond said GPS might keep some offenders from reoffending, but by itself, won't eliminate the threat entirely. "That's why mandatory treatment for some sex offenders and incentives to change are very important, because what we want is sex offenders to change the way they think and act."

Public Perception
The public generally perceives sex offenders, as a whole, to be of little or no value to society because of the horrific stories heard about the worst of them. But sources agreed that offenders pose varying degrees of danger to society.

"Some of them need to be in prison forever," English said. "But that's not the typical offender. The typical offender is somebody's dad, brother or uncle. From our vantage point, that person forfeited all their rights. But the truth is they didn't, and the family still has some interest in the person healing."

That's why a lifetime of structure -- GPS monitoring, polygraph testing, treatment --for some offenders is key, English said. "Here's the deal: I'm not even going to leave my dogs alone with these guys. I'm just not going to put them at risk of falling off the wagon. And I'm not going to put my dogs at risk."

Numbers from a Bureau of Justice Statistics study (compiled in 2003 from 1994 data, the latest available) documented levels of recidivism among 272,111 men and women released from state prisons in 15 different states in 1994 showed the following:

  • Sex offenders, including child molesters, rapists and statutory rapists, were less likely to reoffend than non-sex offenders after being released from prison.
  • Within three years following their 1994 release from prison, 43 percent of the 9,691 sex offenders released were rearrested, compared to 68 percent of the 272,111 men and women who were jailed for nonsexual crimes.
  • About 95 percent were arrested for something other than a sex crime.
  • Of the 9,691 offenders arrested for a sex crime, 4,295 were convicted of sexual activity with children, and were more likely to commit another sexual offense than other sexual offenders.
  • Child molesters were typically released after serving about three years of their seven-year sentence. Within three years of their release, 141 (3.3 percent) of them were rearrested for another sex crime against a child.

    As with nearly anything, the longer the time period studied, the higher the chance the recidivism numbers will increase.

    Another study, done in 1998 by corrections researchers R. Karl Hanson and Monique T. Bussiere at the Department of the Solicitor General of Canada, concluded from a meta-analysis study of 23,393 sex offenders, that 13 percent committed another sex crime within four to five years after release.

    Still another study from 1998 by Dennis M. Doren, evaluation director at the Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center in Madison, Wis., looked at recidivism of offenders over a period of 25 years and found the rate to be 52 percent for sex abusers. This study used a sample of 251 high-risk subjects. Just being charged with the crime was used for statistics in this study, as opposed to conviction as with the other studies.

    "There is a percentage of sex offenders that does pose a substantial risk of reoffending," LaFond said. "That's where we need to put our resources. What bothers me is this sort of one-size-fits-all strategy."

    Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the GPS monitoring of sex offenders opens a Pandora's box. "If you start tracking convicted sex offenders, what about convicted drunk drivers or registered handgun owners? What about people law enforcement might consider suspicious but have no basis to arrest? States should proceed down this
  • road carefully."

    LaFond derided some tactics used to track sex offenders as panaceas that appeal to the public, but don't really work. "There's no evidence that registration or notification [to citizens of a sex offender's presence in the neighborhood] either reduce sex crimes or help in their solution. We need to target much better than we are targeting, and we need to have strategies that have teeth."

    He said most states require all sex offenders to register, rather than just those who pose a significant risk. He said notification of citizens is fine but should be done at public meetings where there is a discussion of risk assessment and so forth.

    Without strict monitoring of the most dangerous offenders, there is a risk of imparting a false sense of security to the public, LaFond said. "This is the whole problem with sex offender public policy, they're sort of quick fixes that promise complete safety, and the harsh reality is we are not going to prevent all sex crimes, so we should try to prevent the most crimes we can."

    GPS monitoring, if used as part of an arsenal, can be effective in managing sex offenders, but it could prove impotent if not used properly. "It's a great tool," Florida's Satterfield said. "But it's not going to prevent an offender from committing a crime if that's what he's set out to do."
    Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor