Tracking Sex Offenders
Tracking Sex Offenders
Sex offenders commit some of the most heinous crimes, and are among the most likely to recidivate. For years, states have tried different methods to punish and rehabilitate these offenders.
In North Carolina , sex offenders are treated as a special population. For those given probation, there is a Sex Offender Control Program to which judges can assign them. More serious sex offenders are given prison sentences and must be supervised in the community for five years after their release, instead of the nine months required of other serious criminals. Sex offenders must publicly register for 10 years if they live, work or go to school in North Carolina . Certain categories of sex offenders must register for life. The names, faces and addresses of sex offenders are posted online. They were among the first to provide DNA samples upon conviction, and the laws addressing their crimes have grown more numerous and more severe each year.
North Carolina has nearly 10,000 sex offenders, whose crimes commonly range from taking indecent liberties with children (a Class F felony) to first degree rape (a Class B1 felony). Lesser felonies, and some misdemeanors, may also require registration. Depending on the crime, sex offenders may be sentenced to probation for several years, to a relatively short prison sentence, or to a lengthy prison sentence followed by five years of supervision. Probation and post-release supervision can include intensive contact with a probation officer, electronic monitoring for curfew enforcement, mandatory treatment, and other tools. This year, state legislators will consider adding another tool to the supervision toolbox for sex offenders: tracking with Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology.
Who’s watching sex offenders? According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), more than a dozen states monitor sex offenders through GPS, and 15,000 sex offenders could be wearing tracking devices by the end of 2007 (I). Florida was among the first, and last year it significantly expanded its program, requiring lifetime GPS monitoring of certain categories of sex offenders. Other southern states passing GPS legislation include Georgia , Tennessee and South Carolina . The North Carolina Department of Correction ran a small GPS pilot program in 2004, and proposed a more comprehensive program in 2005. That program was not funded, but the 2006 House Select Committee on Sex Offender Registration has proposed draft legislation that would require GPS monitoring of the most serious sex offenders while they are under the control of the Division of Community Corrections through probation or post-release supervision.
How does it work? With GPS monitoring, the sex offender wears an anklet that is wirelessly connected to a box that is carried or worn on the waist. The box connects with satellites to determine the offender’s location, recording data almost continuously to create a map over time of the offender’s movements. GPS monitoring can be used in “real-time” to learn almost instantly if an offender has violated a condition of supervision, or after the fact to review an offender’s location over the last 24 hours. The former use (termed “active”) requires adequate cellular tower coverage to transmit GPS data to a computer server as often as every minute. The latter use (termed “passive”) sends the data to a computer server once a day over a regular phone line. Because active GPS requires cellular tower coverage, it is not appropriate for very rural or mountainous areas — if you cannot get reception on a cell phone, neither can the GPS box. It can still record information, but it cannot send it to anyone until it gets in range of a cellular tower.
Each offender’s GPS can be customized. Buffers can be set up to proscribe areas that are off limits to an offender — such as schools, parks and daycare centers. If an offender enters one of these zones, an alarm will sound on his box and he will receive a message to call his probation officer. With active GPS, the probation officer will be instantly notified of any violation, including any tampering with the GPS device. With passive GPS, the officer will be notified once a day of all violations that occurred the previous day.
Are there drawbacks? GPS technology is time consuming and expensive, and is not a perfect system. One of the first things a state finds is that using GPS — active or passive — is time-intensive. Violation alerts occur frequently, and each one must be reviewed and the supervising officer must decide whether or not to respond. This includes notification of a dropped signal, which may indicate that the offender has tampered with his GPS box, but can also happen because the offender is in a moving car or a large building. The frequency with which violations occur means that probation and parole officers cannot handle high caseloads.
In addition to the need for more officer resources, the technology itself is expensive. Active GPS costs approximately $9 per offender per day, or about $3,300 a year; passive GPS costs about half that much.
Finally, some people fear that GPS monitoring creates a false sense of security. While GPS can increase the likelihood that an offender will be caught, and therefore deter some crimes, no monitoring system can prevent crimes.
What has been proposed? Following release from prison, Florida requires that offenders convicted of certain offenses be supervised and monitored with active GPS for the rest of their natural lives. The law is proactive; it applies only to offenders who commit crimes or violate their probation after the law was imposed. Georgia also requires lifetime monitoring for certain offenders.
One concern about lifelong programs is that, as time passes, offenders will “stack up” in the system. This stacking effect snowballs costs over time. Already, corrections officials in Florida are facing the complexities of funding and managing a much larger program than their pre-2005 case-by-case program.
The North Carolina House Select Committee on Sex Offender Registration has proposed a more modest program, with an anticipated 300 of the highest risk offenders. Offenders convicted of certain crimes, or assessed as high risk by the Department of Correction, would be placed on GPS monitoring for their period of probation or post-release supervision. The probation or supervision period, under existing law, cannot exceed five years. This program is also proactive, and therefore will not cover today’s 10,000 offenders unless they commit another sex offense. The Department of Correction estimates the costs in the first year will be $1.3 million, with 95 percent of offenders on active GPS and the remaining five percent on passive GPS.
The proposed program, while less costly in the long-run than Florida ‘s or Georgia ‘s, would monitor sex offenders for, at most, their first five years of registration, unless an offender commits another sex crime. The program also leaves out another group of offenders: sex offenders who violate their registration requirements. More than 650 offenders are currently in violation, a Class F felony. It can be expected that offenders will continue to violate these requirements. These offenders are among those that citizens are probably most concerned about: sex offenders who do not obey the registration laws; however, failure to register is not defined as an offense warranting GPS monitoring. Offenders are not covered under the GPS proposal unless the Department of Correction assesses them as high risk.
When the 2006 legislative session begins next week, the House Select Committee will report its proposed legislation to the General Assembly. Over the next few months, legislators will have to determine whether GPS monitoring is worth the cost, and if so, what will be the scope of North Carolina ‘s program.
I. Peggy Conway, editor of the Journal of Offender Monitoring , as cited by Martha Moore, “States look to high-tech tools to track, map sex offenders,” USA Today , March 7, 2006.