Shooting Puts Gps Trackers Under Scrutiny

State Has Increasingly Used Devices To Monitor Youths

July 18, 2009|By Justin Fenton and Melissa Harris | Justin Fenton and Melissa Harris,Justin.fenton@baltsun.com and Melissa.harris@baltsun.com

State officials promoted new GPS technology last year as a way to constantly monitor juvenile offenders, enabling the state to know the exact location of troubled youths and help keep communities and victims safe.

But the shooting of a 5-year-old girl, caught in the crossfire as two juvenile offenders argued July 2, has cast attention on the limitations of the devices. Even though the person suspected in the shooting, a 17-year-old with a long juvenile record, was wearing a monitoring unit on his leg, officials did not know his whereabouts in the lead-up to the shooting and its aftermath.

The reason appears to be that the new technology - while superior in some respects - is still easily thwarted by offenders who don't want to be tracked.

After Gov. Martin O'Malley set aside $1 million in the budget last year for the GPS units, officials now say they have serious questions about the technology and the vendor that administers it, Nebraska-based iSECUREtrac Inc. State and local officials have been asking questions of the Department of Juvenile Services, which met this week with representatives from the vendor.

"We have not had any serious problems with it relative to this point, but this case has raised some concerns about not only the technology but also some questions about the vendor that monitors this system for us under contract," Donald W. DeVore, secretary of the state juvenile services agency, said Thursday.

Across the country, law enforcement agencies are embracing enhanced GPS technology as a way to keep tabs on violent offenders, using the devices to track juveniles, child predators and those accused of domestic violence, among others. The technology is often promoted as a way to quickly alert police if the offenders get too close to their victims or violate terms of their sentences.

As of July 1, the Department of Juvenile Services was using global positioning devices to track 188 youths statewide, including 71 in Baltimore, state data show.

Officials say the new technology brings many benefits over previous versions of home monitoring devices. It consists of two parts - an anklet and a device the size of an MP3 player called a personal tracking unit, which must be within 150 feet of each other. Offenders who keep the two components of the device together are tracked as they go to school or work, or venture into areas they have been instructed to stay away from.

The real-time monitoring allows those watching the offender's movements to spot violations within minutes, a key improvement, officials say. In the past, it could take hours to find out that offenders were flouting the terms of their release.

"If the youth has the [tracking unit] with him and it's charged, the community detention officer can see on a computer exactly where the violator is, call Baltimore police with that location, and ask for their help in picking him up," said Tammy Brown, chief of staff for the juvenile services agency.

But the ability of authorities to monitor offenders comes up short once the anklet and tracking unit are separated and the radio frequencies are no longer being transmitted, Brown said. The state will know within minutes that a juvenile has gone off the grid, but the GPS anklet alone no longer functions as a way to track them down.

The technology, in other words, offers an enhanced way to track those who comply with the requirements and keep the equipment in tandem. But beyond alerting authorities to a violation, the device is essentially useless once the offender walks away from the personal tracking unit. Offenders don't even need to cut off the anklet to avoid being tracked.

Representatives from iSECUREtrac Inc. could not be reached for comment.

Matthew Joseph, director of Advocates for Children and Youth, said his organization has long had concerns that the state was pursuing tracking in lieu of services.

"You might be able to find out more quickly that they've become delinquent, but we don't think of it as a service that prevents delinquency from occurring," Joseph said. "It has always seemed like a high-tech gimmick."

The debate over the technology's effectiveness is a flash point, given criticism that the state lacks resources to lock up its most violent and troubled youths or provide services to those on community detention.

Mayor Sheila Dixon has questioned why Lamont Davis, who had a dozen juvenile arrests, was placed on home monitoring and said she has been frustrated with the response from juvenile justice officials.

Police say he got into a street fight July 2 and returned with a gun, firing an errant shot that struck 5-year-old Raven Wyatt in the head. Davis was indicted Friday on two counts of attempted first-degree murder.

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