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By Kris Axtman Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
HOUSTON) Cash-strapped states are increasingly using what was once a
military-only technology to free up prison beds and keep inmates from
committing crimes while on early release.
An electronic bracelet, strapped to a parolee's ankle, uses Global
Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology to track his or her every move.
It alerts a parole officer if a convicted sex offender is near a
school, for instance, or if a drunk driver steps into a bar.
Oklahoma may well be the next state to use this technology to keep
prison populations -- and prison costs -- down. Just this week, a bill
passed both houses and is awaiting the governor's signature.
The number of states using this technology has multiplied in the past
few years -- a direct result of the limping economy, says Lee Kicker,
western regional sales manager for Pro-Tech, the company which
contracts the technology.
"Our biggest success has been in getting heads off beds," says Mr.
Kicker, referring to municipalities that are looking to release
"Compared to a jail bed, it's dramatically cheaper."
The Florida Department of Corrections first began using the technology
in 1997, and currently 32 states and 125 different jurisdictions
utilize this system. The savings -- GPS costs an average of $5 a day
compared to $50 a day in prison -- is significant.
But some wonder about the wisdom of letting inmates out early -- even
if it's only nonviolent offenders, as will be the case with the
Oklahoma Department of Corrections. The state wants to send 800
offenders now on work release home with a GPS tracking device and move
800 inmates in prison to work release. All of them could be monitored
with the technology.
"We're not in favor of taking people out of prisons and putting them
on GPS," says Kicker, a former Dallas police officer. "But many
people, like those on work release, can do just as well out on the
street as they can in prison."
Some jurisdictions use GPS to monitor parolees or those on probation.
Some, such as Tulsa County, use it to monitor people awaiting trial.
There, the county assesses the danger and flight risk and then decides
whether to let someone out with an ankle bracelet.
Officials there have monitored over 1,000 people so far, with charges
ranging from domestic abuse to drugs to murder. In that time, only
seven have failed to appear in court and six were captured within 48
"They usually test us for the first couple days, but when they realize
that we truly do know their whereabouts at all times, they behave
themselves," says Kevin Francis, director of court services for Tulsa
He calculates that the GPS tracking system has already saved taxpayers
$3.2 million annually -- enough to fund his entire office for a year.
GPS sends back signals and data in real time, which is a far cry from
old tracking systems. Parole officers input curfew times and exclusion
zones, such as a playground, a victim's house, or a bar, into a
computer and are beeped if an offender enters that area.
In Colorado, for instance, a convicted sex offender was found
frequently returning to the scene of his crime. One of the first signs
of reoffending, experts say, is fantasizing about a prior offense, so
the man was sent back to prison for violating the terms of his parole.
Studies have shown that satellite-tracking systems can reduce the
number of parolees who commit crimes. In Florida, where the system has
been in operation longer, recidivism rates among sex offenders have
gone from around 50 percent to between 3 and 7 percent.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), though it's concerned about
the monitoring of people who might not be included if the GPS tracking
wasn't an option, says the technology is a good alternative to
The US has over 2 million people in custody and the rate of
incarceration is several times that of most industrialized nations,
says Elizabeth Alexander, director of the ACLU's National Prison
Project in Washington.
"We need to reform our criminal-justice system and be certain that we
are using our scarce resources on prisons only when it is absolutely
necessary," she says. "So we support alternatives that do that -- and
protect the public's safety."
But the system is not foolproof. Like any technology, it's subject to
human error. Here in Houston, for example, convicted rapist Lawrence
Napper was placed on the GPS system after being paroled in 2000.
He was supposed to go only from home to work to his parole office, but
in nine months, he logged 444 violations that were never caught. He
was then transferred to a less restrictive monitoring program and, a
month later, was arrested for sexually assaulting a 6-year-old boy. He
was sentenced to life in prison.
"There is a chance for human error. I'm not going to argue that
point," says Kicker. "But you can't strap an ankle bracelet on a guy
and then forget about him. It takes a certain amount of diligence on
the parole officer's part."
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