Satellites Help Track Offenders in Realtime

Florida and Pennsylvania use a GPS-based system for realtime offender tracking.

by / April 30, 1997
State and federal correction agencies are staggering under the cost of incarcerating the nation's 1.6 million inmates -- more than all personnel on active duty in the U.S. armed forces. And the number is growing. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that by the year 2005 the prison population will be 3.5 million. If the underlying causes are not addressed, that number could be even higher.

Since the Supreme Court ruled that federal prisons cannot exceed 125 percent capacity, and state prisons 117 percent -- limits reached by most in the 1980s -- the criminal justice system has been forced to release increasing numbers of inmates before their sentences are up to make room for dangerous criminals. In the past, those on early release were generally placed in house-arrest programs, and their presence in the home electronically monitored. Nonviolent, low-risk offenders, allowed out to work at day jobs, had to be "clocked in" at hours prescribed by the supervising agency.

Monitoring programs are considerably cheaper than incarceration. They also enable working offenders to begin paying restitution to victims and reimbursing the state for the cost of monitoring. Also, since 68 percent of incarcerated first-timers end up back inside, placing them in monitoring programs instead of in cells with habitual criminals may help reduce recidivism among this group.

Conventional house-arrest electronic monitoring systems use a miniature transmitter locked around the offender's ankle. The device communicates with a modem attached to the telephone. When the individual comes home, the transmitter instructs the modem to send a "time-in" message to a central monitoring facility. If the subject goes beyond, say, 150 feet from the house, the modem automatically transmits a "time-out" message. The information is relayed to the supervising agency, where it goes into a database of case files. Correction or parole officers can bring up a file at any time to see if the subject is abiding by the prescribed home-confinement hours.

However, conventional house-arrest monitoring does not track the movements of individuals outside the home. "The problem with these systems," said former Florida governor and U.S. drug czar Bob Martinez, "is that if you're not home, no one knows where you are." With growing pressure to put more offenders on electronic monitoring, the need is a system that enables supervising agencies to know where the offender is at all times.

Pro Tech Monitoring Inc., a company headed by Martinez, developed the Satellite Monitoring and Remote Tracking (SMART) system, which combines GIS, GPS, cellular phone and Internet technologies for 24-hour tracking. The person under supervision wears a 3.5-ounce, tamper-proof ankle bracelet electronically "leashed" to a small, portable tracking device (PTD) carried in a waist pack, handbag or briefcase. The PTD contains the microprocessor, GPS receiver and cellular/land-line communication system.

According to Martinez, the rules of behavior can be programmed into each device from a desktop PC. Constraints can include boundaries set up by geography and time -- where the subject is supposed to be at specific hours of the day and night, routes to and from work or rehabilitation classes, restricted areas of the community and the distance in feet the individual may be from the device. This can be up to 1,000 feet, depending on the type of work the person does. If the specified distance is exceeded for more than a few minutes, the device notifies the control center of the violation. The police are then directed to apprehend the person.

If a guideline is violated, the device warns the subject with an alarm, a digitized voice and a liquid crystal display message. A violation not corrected within the required time, usually minutes, triggers a call to the control center via cellular phone. When the subject is home, the device automatically switches communications from cellular to the home telephone. "The device is like a warden looking down on you to be sure that you comply," said Martinez.

From a desktop PC, a parole officer or case supervisor can access a file at the central control Web site, and trace past movements or track an individual's movements in realtime on a computerized map. The file allows the agency to see if the person is showing up for work on time, going to rehabilitation classes every week, or has been at or near the scene of a crime. Pro Tech inventor Hoyt Layson Jr. said the system can also be used as an investigative tool. "Imagine being able to go into a 7-Eleven with a list of mug shots of subjects that were in the area at the time of the crime."

According to Martinez, SMART is particularly effective in cases involving domestic violence. If, for example, an abusive husband or boyfriend under court restraint comes within so many miles of where his wife or girlfriend lives or works, he is immediately warned of imminent arrest unless he leaves the area. At the same time, the victim is warned to get to a safer place. If the warning is ignored or the PTD ditched, police in the area are directed to apprehend the person.

What happens if the offender tries to take the system apart? "Turn one screw," said Martinez, "and the unit automatically sends a 'help' message to headquarters."

SMART will be tested this year in Florida and Pennsylvania. Bureau Chief Richard Nimer of the Florida Department of Corrections said the agency will begin trial runs in Tallahassee, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Orlando, Pensacola and Jacksonville. "We'll put it on ourselves -- those of us on the implementation team, probably a few of the judges, maybe the state attorney -- wear it for awhile and make sure that it articulates where we've been. After that we'll start off with low-risk offenders. If it works properly, we'll move on to high-risk types."

Nimer said there is no shortage of eligibles for electronic monitoring in Florida. "Our community control program is the largest in the nation -- we've got over 15,000 on house arrest; of that, only about 1,000 are electronically monitored. Then we've got another 140,000 on state-felony probation. The vast majority of our caseloads have not been supervised using electronic monitoring. With GPS, however, we'll have a type of supervision that we've never had before. We envision using this as a tool to enhance personal supervision of these offenders."

He added that plea agreements involving sex offenders and pedophiles often result in putting them on the community control program. "When witnesses are unwilling to testify, or the charges are not sound," Nimer said, "the courts will accept plea agreements. Out of all the cases disposed of in felony court in the state of Florida, only 3 percent go to trial. At times you end up with high-risk types on supervision that you would rather see in prison. If they are on supervision, ultimately, they're the ones we want to pinpoint for electronic monitoring.

"This approach is the opposite of that taken by most jurisdictions. They try to find a group of people who don't pose a risk that are going to be successful on the program. We want electronic monitoring on the worst of the worst, because they are going to cause the most problems. For example, we haven't used electronic monitoring on nonviolent drug offenders. We've used it on sex offenders and pedophiles because we believe they pose a greater threat to the community."

Nimer said departments of corrections and local law enforcement can work out partnerships based on the new system. "The dispatcher of the local sheriff's office can be notified when a violation occurs. The message will pop up on the mapping software in their office showing the location of the device. The dispatcher can then direct a [patrol car] already in the field to pick up the person."

He acknowledged that the new technology is a more expensive alternative than traditional electronic monitoring, but felt communities will be getting greater protection because GPS has far more capabilities. "The new system is going to cost us $12 to $18 a day, per offender, excluding staff expenses, but we expect that to drop in time as the company recovers R&D costs."

Lackawanna County, Pa., will begin field testing SMART, using office staff and volunteers, then do a six-month trial with low- to medium-risk defendants who are already in the criminal justice system. District Attorney Michael J. Barrasse said the system will eventually be used in certain bail situations, and with parolees and various work-release individuals "to ensure we know where they are, and whether or not they are complying with their conditions of release.

"At this point, however, the county is looking at the system more as a tool to provide post-sentence protection for the victim, where the offender is classified as low- to medium-risk" said Barrasse. "One of the strong points of the system is its ability to track the abuser as well as the person who needs protection. If they're both traveling, and their zones happen to cross, his alarm will go off. If he gets closer and violates a second zone, both his and the victim's alarms will go off, along with the police being notified, and our assistant DA who is on call -- the victim is no longer in the dark."

And if the offender ditches the device? "All of these monitors have one failing -- if somebody snaps and ditches the PTD, or snips it off, you may know where that person was last, but you don't know where they're going to. With this system, though, both the supervising agency and the victim are going to know the offender has broken contact with the device. This allows the victim to move to a safe place until the offender is relocated."

Since Lackawanna County is in the northeast corner of Pennsylvania, near the Pocono Mountains, one of the objectives of testing will be to determine the effects of the mountains on operating the system and other areas where satellite signals are blocked. Since even geodetic-grade GPS receivers with sophisticated antennas on tall masts are subject to occasional signal blocking by mountains, hills, forests, trees with heavy canopies, and tall buildings, jurisdictions may have to work around these limitations, possibly by requiring the subject to notify the control center before entering buildings or going into areas known to block satellite signals. "We are not overly concerned about this," Barrasse said, "for the simple fact that we would only lose contact with the device for a few seconds."

Another factor may be accuracy. With selective availability (SA), a feature imposed by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) that diminishes GPS accuracy for non-military uses, GPS-derived coordinates have an accuracy of about 300 feet, although measurements made over 30 minutes or more from a fixed position can average out to about 50 feet. Without SA, raw GPS is accurate to 60 feet. Since the president has given the DOD 10 years to remove SA, it is likely to be around for a while. On the other hand, if GPS monitoring systems incorporate differential correction signals, as broadcast by the Coast Guard or other agencies, differential GPS accuracy will be better than 15 feet. But, Layson said, "Jurisdictions are not interested in knowing which chair the offender is in, they're interested in his movements through the community."

Authorities in Florida and Pennsylvania have discussed the feasibility of the system with experts as well as with judicial, law enforcement and corrections representatives nationwide. "We have talked with a number of district attorneys," said Barrasse, "throughout the state and on the national level. Law enforcement and district attorneys' offices around the country are looking to see if this is going to be an effective tool."

As research and development progress in this field, monitoring systems will get smaller with each generation. Barrasse definitely believes this is the direction GPS-based monitoring systems are heading. "I don't think we're so far away from this becoming a more advanced system similar to heart monitors -- not right now, but down the road."

Martinez agreed. "Obviously, our devices will get smaller as batteries become smaller and more cost effective. Some of our visionary engineers say we can probably have the system down to where it would all be in the ankle bracelet. I don't see that for the next couple of years, but I do see it being the size of a typical Motorola cellular [phone] in the near future."

Higher-risk individuals will eventually be placed on this new GPS-based monitoring system if testing in Florida and Pennsylvania show the system is consistently reliable and offenders would rather carry the device, follow rules, and have a measure of freedom than be in prison.

As for the voluntary aspect of the system, with 1.4 percent of America's population in jail by 2005, a self-contained, tamper-proof ankle bracelet is inevitable. Scientists say that identification implants are already possible. Can monitoring implants be far behind?

Bill McGarigle is a freelance writer specializing in communication and information technology. E-mail:

PROBLEM/SITUATION: Conventional electronic monitoring systems do not provide adequate community protection from offenders on release-supervision programs.

SOLUTION: A GPS-based system capable of monitoring behavior and movements of offenders 24-hours, in realtime.

JURISDICTION: Florida Dept. of Corrections, Office of Community Corrections, Tallahassee; District Attorney's Office, Lackawanna County, Scranton, Pa.

VENDORS: Pro Tech Monitoring Inc.

CONTACTS: Richard Nimer, Florida Dept. of Corrections, 904/487-2165; Michael J. Barrasse, district attorney, Lackawanna County, 717/963-6717. Bob Martinez, president, Pro Tech Monitoring Inc., 888/677-6278. Internet: .