GPS turning outside world into virtual jail

Electronic tags help Pa. police keep track of suspects on bail

September 09, 2001|By Matthew P. Blanchard | By Matthew P. Blanchard,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. - Parole officer Bob McCullough likes what he sees on his laptop screen: a green dot motionless on a computer map of the city.

The dot is not trying to harm its ex-girlfriend, or escape across state lines.

It is, McCullough observes, behaving itself.

That green dot is a 54-year-old contractor who was charged with dragging the woman he was dating into his cellar in January, repeatedly punching her in the face, loading a rifle and threatening to shoot her and her son.

Now he's out on bail. At one time, her only protection until his trial in the fall would have been a paper-thin restraining order, one of 40,000 issued each year in Pennsylvania.

Instead, his ex-girlfriend has a fleet of 24 satellites. Orbiting 12,000 miles up, they track his movements, block by block, minute by minute, via a tiny box of electronics and an ankle bracelet. His whereabouts show up almost instantaneously on a Web site map. If he comes within 1.3 miles of her home, a computer pages authorities.

Begun in the late 1970s by the U.S. Department of Defense, the $12 billion satellite network known as the Global Positioning System (GPS) commonly is used by pilots, sailors and hunters to pinpoint their locations.

Now, for as many as 2,000 offenders nationwide, GPS is turning the outside world into a virtual jail, in which they are under outer-space guard 24-7.

Since 1998, when the technology for such monitoring rolled out of the lab, corrections departments in 28 states have adopted it, typically for sex offenders and domestic abusers out on bail, probation or parole.

Two-county test

In Pennsylvania, the system is being tested not only in Lycoming County, where McCullough is chief of adult probation, but also in Lackawanna.

If it works well, state Sen. John Gordner says, he will introduce a bill this fall to make GPS monitoring available across the commonwealth - especially as an early warning for victims of domestic violence.

The fledgling technology is still prone to glitches. Yet, experts predict that within two decades hundreds of thousands of offenders of all stripes will be followed from on high.

In Florida - the nation's leading user of GPS - corrections officials see their 600-unit program expanding to include all of the state's 150,000 felony probationers.

Richard Nimer, the department's program director, said criminals are less likely to re-offend "because they know they're being watched" - although a man recently ditched his tracking box at a fast-food restaurant and, still in his anklet, robbed the bank next door.

"Boom!" Nimer said. "We had him tracked."

The GPS system is light-years ahead of even the electronic-monitoring anklets now used for house arrest, in which radio waves tell a box in the offender's home whether he is there during curfew hours.

GPS, by contrast, doesn't stop at the front door.

How it works

In the most common system, built by Pro Tech Monitoring of Odessa, Fla., the offender carries a 3-pound tracking box about the size of a child's lunch box.

At any given moment, the device is receiving signals from at least three of the 24 Navstar satellites; by triangulation, the box constantly calculates its latitude and longitude.

An anklet of rubber and metal ensures that box and offender stay together, triggering an alarm if they are separated by more than 100 feet.

An internal cell phone allows the box to relay its location to Pro Tech computers, which display the data on real-time maps at the firm's Web site.

The system is so precise that McCullough can see that an offender is traveling 67 mph on Interstate 80.

Red boxes on the map denote restricted "hot zones" around the victim's workplace or home, or, in the case of pedophiles, school yards and playgrounds.

If the offender violates a hot zone or tampers with the box or the bracelet, a Pro Tech computer pages probation agents; in some states, victims can receive simultaneous pager alerts.

More than 100 offenders have gone through Lycoming County's two-year pilot program, with only two hot-zone incursions, both ruled accidental, and no violence.

Some erroneous reports

At $12 a day for each person, the system is cheaper than keeping someone in jail, which costs $45 a day. And, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, there have been no legal challenges anywhere in the nation to the system's constitutionality.

That is not say it is free of serious problems.

The green Dot, identified by probation officers only as "John," is eager to cooperate with a system that keeps him out of jail, and working.

"If I were sitting in jail, my business and life would be shut right off," John said. "And I'd probably lose my mind."

Yet he often finds himself squinting up at unseen satellites, wondering why his GPS unit is telling police he has tried to escape when he hasn't.

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