ANNAPOLIS- A technology used to guide smart bombs in Iraq, detect nuclear detonations, and navigate ships and airplanes could be pressed into service to keep tabs on so-called “predatory” sex offenders in Maryland.
Convicted offenders may soon be required to wear hardware that connects them to the global positioning system, which uses a network of 24 satellites to triangulate the location and movements of an object to within about 16 feet.
“[An offender] may be registered for life, but really, what good does it do if you don’t know what he’s up to?” Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said.
Curran’s remarks came at a Legislative hearing on Thursday discussing bills to require violent sex offenders or those who victimize children to register for lifetime GPS tracking.
To be accurately tracked via GPS, a person must be equipped with a tamper-proof transmitter anklet and a portable tracking device worn on the waist to pick up the radio signals.
The tracking device runs on a battery that needs to be recharged for four to six hours about once a day. The tracking device can be removed, but it notes instances when it is separated by more than a pre-set distance from the always-on, water-resistant ankle bracelet worn by the offender.
In Montgomery County, GPS is already being used to monitor around 40 offenders of different types who are under court-ordered curfews. Text messages are sent through the equipment to warn violators that probation officers know where they are.
Sharon Trexler, chief of Montgomery County’s pre-trial services, said the program is working well, though there have been a few minor technical problems.
“They’re the same glitches you would come across with a cell phone,” she said.
Trexler said signals are sometimes lost when weather is particularly cloudy or when tracking devices go underground, but only for short periods of time.
These proposals come on the heels of a Florida law named for 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, whose abduction and murder last February led to charges against a convicted sex offender. “Jessica’s Law,” passed last May, includes a provision for GPS tracking of “sexual predators” or offenders who probation officers recommend for monitoring.
The Florida tracking system stipulates certain “inclusion” and “exclusion” areas for offenders, sending an alert to an on-call officer any time an offender enters an exclusion zone. Around 246 sex offenders were being monitored in Florida last June according to data from the state’s Department of Corrections.
A December study by a Maryland GPS task force found that the state could benefit financially from using offender monitoring in place of incarceration, but the tracking itself could be very costly.
“It’s not a cheap venture,” said John F. Tewey, who headed up the task force. “It’s not only the monitoring, it’s responding to this new information.”
The task force estimated that electronic monitoring could cost the state anywhere from $7 to $13 per day – between $3,000 and $4,500 a year – for each offender. Costs would depend on whether offenders could afford to pay for their own monitoring, and also the nature of the monitoring used.
“Passive” monitoring, which would allow for a Division of Parole and Probation agent to download information about where a person has been in the previous 24 hours, would be slightly cheaper than “active” GPS tracking, which requires continuous monitoring.
Tewey said the different tracking methods would likely be used for different types of offenders. Passive monitoring would be more effective for tracking a non-violent car thief, he said, while active monitoring would be more useful for keeping tabs on a carjacker who could possibly be a threat to others.
While GPS tracking costs less than a fourth of the over $20,000 the state spends annually per incarcerated prisoner, the task force’s report showed that the cost of monitoring is still prohibitive when it comes to less dangerous offenders on probation. Caseloads for agents would have to come down significantly, from between 50 and 100 cases per agent to no more than 25 under active monitoring or 40 under passive.
“The big cost is going to be the additional staff,” Tewey said. “There has to be a 24/7 response unit.”
The task force recommended that parole and probation officers use a process of determining the threat level and location of an offender to decide whether to monitor which type of monitoring should be used. “It wouldn’t be useful to put it on everybody,” Tewey said.