Real-Time Tracking of Parolees Taking Off
By Mark Frauenfelder, Mon Jul 12 20:00:00 GMT 2004

Law-enforcement agencies are learning the value of using GPS to keep a constant eye on some released prisoners.

Violent sex offenders in Tennessee will receive a shiny new piece of jewelry from the state government when they're paroled from prison next year: a GPS ankle bracelet that tracks their whereabouts around the clock. About 600 ex-cons (half of the number of rapists scheduled to be released in the state) will get clamped with the tracking devices as part of a pilot program.

Portable Tracking Devices (or PTDs) have long been used by law enforcement to keep tabs on parolees and house-arrest prisoners, but most don't operate in real time. Instead, they upload location data periodically, typically at the end of each day. These "delayed reporting" systems are less expensive to use than real-time devices, because they don't need to make as many mobile calls. But local and state governments are beginning believe that the value of real-time tracking devices, particularly when used to monitor violent offenders with poor impulse control, outweigh the costs. Such devices can instantly warn police when a wearer comes close to a park, schoolyard, or other predetermined "zone of exclusion."

Just how costly is real-time tracking? In Tennessee, it'll run about $290 per month per felon. That adds up to about $2 million a year, a small price to pay to keep tabs on rapists, who have a notoriously high recidivism rate. Of course, this is just a pilot program, and the costs will be higher if the state decides to clamp the devices on all the sex offenders it paroles. State legislators hope they'll be able to recoup at least part of the costs by taking a percentage of the felon's wages. (Who's going to hire them? That's another question.)

As equipment and service costs for real-time PTDs go down, it's likely that more law-enforcement departments around the US and the world will consider using them on all types of parolees, especially after the success stories start rolling in. Earlier this month, for instance, the Seminole County Sheriff's Office in Florida arrested a 25-year-old man who burglarized a house. The not-very-bright burglar, who had been released from jail, was wearing a GPS anklet when he broke into the house.