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Why GPS Cannot Prevent Crimes

March 12, 2009

CNN Vancouver, Washington : Sex offender kills teen while under GPS monitoring, police say.

Sanford was wearing the device when he tried to rape Licy before beating and stabbing her in a field a couple of blocks from the street where she lived, according to police. Authorities said they used GPS to corroborate Sanford’s confession.

The slaying serves as fodder for those who claim GPS is used too broadly and bluntly as a tool for keeping tabs on offenders.

“They can’t monitor it live, and even if you could monitor it live, him being in the field wouldn’t have told you [if] he was murdering the girl,” said Evan Mayo-Wilson, an Oxford University lecturer who has studied the use of GPS.

There are two types of GPS monitoring: active, in which the offender’s whereabouts are surveyed in real-time, and passive, in which probation or parole officers check an offender’s movements after the fact.

Sex offenders should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and supervision programs must be based on fluid assessments that weigh the likelihood of reoffense, said Peter Ibarra, a sociologist at the University of Illinois-Chicago who studies the use of GPS in stalking and domestic violence cases.

Experts say GPS can create a false sense of security because its capabilities are overestimated. Jill Levenson, an associate professor of human sciences at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, said many people believe it is “some magic bullet or panacea that prevents crimes.”

Levenson also concurs with other experts who say the technology is used too sweepingly. Twenty-seven states have some mandatory requirement that the devices be used on sex offenders, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Only six states have no specific provisions for such monitoring.

Most sex offenders are neither violent nor pedophiles, and they re-offend in about one of 20 cases, said Levenson, who studies sex crime policy.

Because the media focus on the most sensational crimes, politicians often focus their energies on combating the violent incidents rather than the more common occurrences, such as people being sexually assaulted by those they know, she said.

UIC’s Ibarra called it a “knee-jerk reaction” by lawmakers. He said he notices that “legislators often propose this kind of [GPS] requirement in the aftermath of some notorious act.”

“[GPS] is not necessarily going to deter people from having sexually deviant intentions,” she said. “Many crimes are more impulsive and opportunistic, and that level of thinking may not go into it.”

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