GPS 'eye' now tracking sex offenders
By Kim Smith
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona Published: 05.27.2008
Anthony Garcia got busted, not by a cop on the street, but by an eye in the sky.
The 18-year-old registered sex offender got too close to a couple of schools, and he didn't stick to his probation-officer-approved schedule.
His probation officer wasn't anywhere around, but he knew where Garcia had been because of a satellite-based GPS tracking system quietly put into use 18 months ago.
Since late 2006, some child molesters who are placed on probation have been required to wear Global Positioning System ankle bracelets that track where they are 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Probation officers can download data whenever they want to check where a defendant has been and whether they're keeping to their pre-approved schedules. Or, the officers can sit at a computer screen to watch a probationer move from place to place in real-time, said David Sanders, Pima County's chief probation officer.
Pima County probation officers are monitoring nine local residents, plus 16 people who live in other Southern Arizona counties that don't have the necessary equipment, said Barbara Johnson, who supervises the sex offender unit of Pima County Adult Probation.
In each case, the child molesters are told there are certain areas where they can't go, Sanders said. If they go into an "exclusionary zone," the ankle bracelet sounds an alarm and immediately notifies his probation officer.
If the probation officer thinks it's necessary, he or she can immediately call the police, Sanders said.
Exclusionary zones could include playgrounds, school yards and victims' neighborhoods.
The tracking system also can be used as an investigative tool, Sanders said. Detectives investigating a sex crime can compare a sex offender's GPS data with the location and time of that crime to see if they match, he said.
Johnson stressed that probation officers are still doing all the same checks they did before GPS — making unannounced visits to homes and jobs, testing for drugs and alcohol and meeting with probationers on a regular basis.
"Just because they are on GPS doesn't mean we sit back," Johnson said. "It's just another tool for us to use."
Garcia, the 18-year-old, was placed on lifetime probation in February 2007 after admitting to sexual conduct with an 8-year-old relative.
A probation officer filed a motion to revoke Garcia's probation on May 6.
According to court documents, Garcia wasn't where he was supposed to be on 11 days, failed to live up to GPS requirements on six days, went near schools twice and failed to participate in his counseling program on a certain day. He also failed to report to his probation officer on another day.
Garcia said he didn't adhere to his schedule, and he didn't live up to his GPS requirements on those dates. Pima County Superior Court Judge John Leonardo could place him back on probation June 6, or he could sentence him to up to 15 years in prison.
Garcia is the first person placed on GPS monitoring who could have his probation revoked because of it, Johnson said. However, a warrant has been issued for a second sex offender who cut off his GPS monitor and disappeared.
Right now, the only sex offenders who are fitted with the GPS monitors are those convicted of "dangerous" crimes against children, who have been placed on probation, Sanders said.
The number who fall into that category is relatively small because most people convicted of such crimes are sent to prison, Sanders said.
In addition, there are some sex crimes that are not considered "dangerous" under Arizona law, Sanders said.
But the number is expected to increase, Sanders said, because there are a few dozen people in prison now who will have to spend time on probation after they're released.
The state is paying for the bracelets, which cost $6 a day, Sanders said.
He said he expects legislators will eventually expand the circumstances under which GPS can be required, possibly to include people awaiting trial, domestic-violence suspects and those convicted of adult sex crimes.
Although no studies have been done to see if the monitors have a deterrent effect on sex offenders, there is speculation they could make them think twice about committing bad acts, Sanders said.
"GPS makes the most sense in cases where there are exclusionary zones that have been set up for justifiable reasons, such as when you have a stalking-type situation when the victim is at a higher risk of being attacked," Sanders said.
Pima County Public Defender Bob Hirsh said he has problems with GPS monitoring, especially considering the cost.
"They've got to know where these people are every second of every day? What's the point of that?" Hirsh said. "I think it's all pretty circumstantial. I'm found near schools every day going to and from the grocery store."
There is no correlation between someone being successful on probation and GPS, Hirsh said. Some people succeed on probation because they've decided to change their behavior, and others simply because they are in a more structured environment.
"I don't see any benefit," Hirsh said. "This is just another example of encroachment by the government."
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