Keeping track of Johnny

January 22, 2008

Gov. Martin O'Malley's desire to invest in a global positioning system to keep tabs on Baltimore's most at-risk juvenile offenders is an obvious choice for a tech-savvy, BlackBerry-dependent executive who sees a faster, more accurate and cost-effective way to monitor youths on probation and living in the community. Technology has been shown to improve outcomes, but in this area, the measure of success has to be fewer repeat offenders and fewer murders of juveniles.

Juvenile caseworkers now keep track of their charges the old-fashioned way, on foot, through visits and by telephone. City police also help, but that's time-consuming and authorities don't always quickly catch up with kids who run off. But a GPS device would identify a teen's location - in school, at home or outside his neighborhood - in real time. That's a key selling point of the proposal to tag 200 Baltimore juveniles; supervision of youthful offenders would be more effective.

The proposed $1 million investment in GPS equipment, which provides more immediate tracking than a traditional electronic ankle bracelet, may mean some kids will spend fewer days in state detention at a savings to the state. GPS technology costs about $20 a day, and it may save time that police now spend assisting juvenile workers.

But would at-risk teenagers tracked by GPS take seriously their responsibilities under probation? Would they become more engaged in their treatment? Would they commit fewer crimes? DJS can't rightly say because GPS has been used by states mostly to follow sex offenders, although California and New Mexico are using it with juveniles. The outcome of these programs varies, and often GPS is used as an alternative to detention. But a 2006 study by Florida State University found that adult offenders with GPS devices were 90 percent less likely to flee or reoffend than those without monitors.

Those are encouraging data, and they support investing in a GPS system. But lawmakers should require state juvenile authorities to provide a year-end report on the results of their pilot project.

In Maryland, about 17 percent of the 2,063 kids supervised by DJS in the community prior to their day in court violated the terms of their release or reoffended, according to state data. But the need to more closely monitor some of these teens was borne out in last year's murders in Baltimore: Eleven juveniles supervised by DJS were killed.

An electronic leash may indeed save lives.

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