GPS Won’t Protect You

September 1, 2009

boston.com : GPS alone won’t protect us.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled recently that sex offenders convicted prior to 2006 cannot automatically be required to wear GPS devices to monitor their location. The decision set off a hue and cry regarding questions of public safety, with some critics even suggesting that it would result in sex offenders flocking to Massachusetts.

But the likely result will be quite the opposite. The decision underscores that, while GPS monitoring can be a helpful tool, it’s no substitute for active human supervision of released offenders. The court decision will likely push Massachusetts toward a more comprehensive approach to safeguarding its citizens.

Electronic monitoring has been used since 1964 to keep track of individuals convicted of drug possession, drunk driving, domestic assault, housing fraud, and credit card fraud. More recently, it has been used to supervise sex offenders. But does GPS monitoring of sex offenders provides the protection we assume?

There is a perception that offenders with GPS supervision are constantly watched, and that such surveillance alone prevents further crimes. Not so. Most GPS monitoring enables the parole or probation officer to track an offender’s movements after they have occurred. If an offender is prohibited from being within 100 feet of a school, an officer will not likely know that the offender went within 100 feet of a school until after reviewing the data showing the offender’s movements. In rare circumstances, an offender’s movements may be monitored in real time 24 hours a day by a technician or officer, but this is labor-intensive and expensive.

Also, the reliability of GPS monitoring suffers from technical problems including cellular interference – similar to dropped cellphone calls – and from the ability of some offenders to remove the bracelet without alarming surveillance officers. Moreover, GPS cannot prevent contact with possible victims within approved zones, such as the supermarket. Finally, most sexual assault victims know the perpetrators, whether as extended family members or community acquaintances, and GPS will do little to prevent that victimization.

Indeed, using GPS to track the sex offenders who are most likely to re-offend does little to curb their behavior. After a while, with little personal intervention by professionals or supervision officials, an offender is likely to ignore the device in an effort to satisfy destructive and antisocial urges. While the officer will eventually discover the offender’s violation, it may well be too late to prevent another victim from being attacked.

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