GPS Bracelets to Track Juveniles in Multnomah County, Ore.

Multnomah County hopes to prevent gang-related crime, but critics say the tracking devices invade privacy and cause false alarms.

by / October 11, 2010

To keep tabs on gangs in Multnomah County, Ore., the Department of Community Justice is moving beyond basic ankle bracelets to devices that can pinpoint exact locations in real time.

The county Board of Commissioners approved nearly $10,000 as part of $117,000 in emergency anti-gang funds for a five-month pilot program, where five youths affiliated with gangs will wear GPS bracelets, The Oregonian reported. The department hopes the technology will provide an advantage in preventing crime and gang activity, but according to the newspaper, some civil libertarians and youth advocates have concerns about teen rights and “a disparate impact on people of color,” according to Jann Carson, associate director and litigation coordinator of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.

“We really are concerned about the rights of youth,” Carl Goodman, the county Department of Community Justice’s assistant director of adult services,  told The Oregonian. “But what corrections has to do is balance civil liberties with the risk of extreme violence.”

Traditional monitoring bracelets send alerts when an individual leaves a designated area. With GPS technology, officers can track a person wherever he or she goes. These monitoring systems typically consist of a GPS receiver/portable tracking device, radio frequency transmitter, stationary charging unit, cell phone and computer software to review GPS data.

Across the country, GPS tracking technology has been used to monitor various offenders, such as sex offenders and other high-profile parolees. California tracks sex offenders and gang members, San Antonio tracks high school truants, and a number of other state and local law enforcement agencies have been tracking offenders for the last five years or so.

But the technology is far from flawless. In many jurisdictions, false alarms have strained personnel and called the effectiveness of the tracking tool into question. In Arizona, a 2007 legislative study found more than 35,000 false alerts by 140 subjects wearing the GPS-monitoring devices. After numerous false alarms involving several subjects, Connecticut officials last year started pushing for a state-run monitoring facility to keep track of offenders being monitored by GPS.

“A lot of people think if you’re on GPS somebody is sitting at a computer and they know your whereabouts all the time,” Bill Carbone, executive director of the Connecticut Supreme Court Services, told Government Technology. “They’re not aware of the influence of weather and other interferences with the system and the cell tower issues.” 

In Multnomah, a judge needs to give authorities permission to track someone. Just as a bracelet could lead officers to a crime, Goodman said, the tool could also be used as evidence for a juvenile’s non-involvement. He also acknowledged that the program represents one piece of a broader crime-prevention strategy that includes a bike patrol to monitor gang hot spots and funding to support people who want to escape gang life.