Bill Tennant's Blackberry never stops buzzing.
It registers an alert 50 times a day. Each time, Tennant—or one of the other parole and probation officers under his command at the New Mexico Corrections Department's response center in Albuquerque—logs on to a computer. There, they bring up a digital map of the state, which they use to track the 80 sex offenders currently under real-time electronic supervision.
The map is pink, the offenders are green blips and schools are red brick icons. During a recent demonstration, Tennant zooms in on a blip, which has flipped from green to red to indicate an offender has wandered outside his approved "inclusion" zone.
The blip, however, is barely outside the boundary of the shaded zone, so Tennant chalks it up as within the GPS device's margin of error. Sometimes there's a drift, he says. Before long, the offender is back in the green, making his way down the road.
GPS technology has made it easier to monitor sex offenders 24 hours a day, whereas before parole/probation officers relied solely on field visits and phone calls. Yet, the new system does have its shortcomings. Mainly, the GPS software can only tell a parole officer where the sex offender has been, not what he has been doing. The offender could be stopping at a liquor store (a parole violation) or meeting up socially with other sex offenders (another violation).
Tennant's recommended method for digging down is to pick two offenders a day at random and follow their paths on the electronic map to deduce patterns in their behavior.
"You kind of have to use the Sherlock Holmes method to look at the data," he says.
This active tracking kicked into high gear two years ago when the Legislature mandated that higher-level sex offenders be under active or real-time GPS monitoring for the duration of their paroles. As of 2003, parole for these offenders is a minimum of five years, a maximum of 20 years and, in 2007, lifetime parole was added for the worst offenders. The program will continue to expand and increase in cost: 147 sex offenders are due for release between now and next summer, according to a report by the New Mexico Sentencing Commission.
Those who work closely with sex offenders say electronic monitoring helps keep their clients in check, but so far is rife with technical glitches. The system is reassuring to some victims' advocates, while others question whether the GPS monitoring really acts as a deterrent or, worse, spurs offenders to commit more heinous crimes.
Meanwhile, criminal defense attorneys and civil rights advocates—long critics of the public dissemination of sex-offender information—argue that electronic monitoring is another way in which the government is stripping these offenders of their civil rights and creating unconstitutional incarceration beyond their assigned sentences. Further, they point to federal research that indicates sex offenders are far less likely to reoffend than non-sex offenders.
And yet, as sex offenders become society's scapegoats, these GPS devices may be the best protection these offenders have to prove alibis.
Ultimately, the debate over GPS tracking emphasizes the fundamental questions of how society deals with its most feared and unpredictable ex-convicts, and whether anything can prevent them from reoffending.
"When my clients complain about it, they'll say, 'This GPS won't stop me from doing anything,'" Dr. Ernesto Santistevan, who counsels sex offenders one-on-one in Santa Fe and Albuquerque through a state contract, says. "What GPS does is let them know they're probably going to get caught."
In orbit 13,000 miles above earth, 24 US military satellites with atomic-clock hearts cycle the earth twice a day. They're monitored and adjusted from ground stations across the planet. These two components, along with the commercial devices available in any tech store, make up the Global Positioning System—a public utility owned by the US government.
A GPS device finds its position in space—latitude, longitude, altitude—by locating four satellites in orbit. It calculates the distance between the quartet to triangulate a point.
GPS was used exclusively by the US military until 1983. That fall, Korean Air Lines Flight 007—New York to Seoul, via Anchorage—drifted into Soviet airspace. It was shot down, killing 269 passengers and the flight crew. In response, President Ronald Reagan ordered the GPS open to civilian use, with the hopes that the technology could prevent future catastrophes.
Twenty-four years later, the planet's dependence on the system means that GPS failure would be a global security emergency, not only for air traffic, but for tracking and targeting missiles and monitoring conflict zones.
In New Mexico, it would mean 80 sex offenders under state supervision would be freed from their electronic balls and chains.
Most of the GPS units placed on sex offenders come in two parts: a light-weight ankle bracelet and a five-pound box that can be worn around the waist or over the shoulder with a strap. An offender must have both devices with him at all times.
The ankle bracelet serves only as an electronic tether to ensure the inmate is always within a few feet of the primary GPS unit. That box triangulates its position and then sends that information through regular cellular signals to the monitoring station. This transmission is where many of the glitches originate.
The devices can transmit an infraction message within 15 seconds. Common violations include "Bracelet Gone" and "Strap Tamper," but the device also alerts law enforcement if there's a curfew violation, if the offender has strayed outside his imposed "inclusion zone" or wandered into the "exclusion zone," which could be a school, a park or a victim's neighborhood.
While these violations often prove real, they are also frequently false. Santistevan says he's watched the device register a "device gone" alert while an offender sat across from him in his office. Snowstorms also interfere with the signal and Santistevan has had to continue
the session in the parking lot while his client tries to reestablish connection.
"Usually, [the alert] will clear, but we're still standing out there in the snow for 30 minutes," Santistevan says.
According to Terry Baker, the parole and probation officer who exclusively handles sex offenders in Santa Fe, cloud cover can interrupt the signals and there are several dead zones in Lamy. Sometimes the satellites themselves are glitchy.
"If a guy is at work at a warehouse, sometimes the GPS will show him 1,000 yards away one minute, and the next minute he'll be back at work," Baker says. "You know he can't cover 1,000 yards in a minute."
This, he says, makes filtering the true violations from the false ones difficult. But that's to be expected with a first-generation device.
"We've got newer models coming down the pipe that I hope will iron out some of these false positives," Baker says. The new devices are one-piece GPS ankle bracelets, and he is already testing one with a parolee.
Right now the state holds an $87,000 contract with Florida-based Pro Tech Monitoring, which provides the devices and software, and maintains an archive of all offender data. The state rents the individual units at a rate of $8.45 per offender per day, the equivalent of more than $3,000 per offender per year.
The offender pays only a fraction of that: $50 per month, but if the device is damaged, lost or thrown away, he is liable for the full cost: $1,500.
That's too much for most offenders, Tennant says.
"If they're going to run, they'll often drop the GPS off [at night]," he says. "We're not open then, but they just drop it outside the front door."
At first, J hated the GPS.
The sex offender was convicted of five second-degree counts of criminal sexual contact of a minor in February. Under his plea deal, he was released with five years of parole to serve on real-time electronic monitoring.
"At first, I thought it was impossible to have this thing, but I got used to it," J, who spoke with SFR on condition of anonymity, says. "If I know where I can go, where I'm not supposed to, that makes it a lot easier to go by the rules and regulations."
A few weeks back, for example, he left the GPS box in his girlfriend's car while he went to work wearing his ankle bracelet. His girlfriend then drove the car, with the device inside, to her grandmother's work, a day care—which registered an alert on the system.
J spent a few days in jail and is now complying with the system.
"This is freedom," J says. "Even though I have this GPS and ankle bracelet, it doesn't bother me anymore. As long as I stay in the Santa Fe city limits and as long as I'm not where I'm not supposed to be at, I'm OK. I always think about that: As long as I'm not in the restricted area, I'm doing fine."
J speaks glowingly of the counselors and parole officers who are charged with his supervision and care. That's unusual, Baker says, compared to the complaints his clients testify about during parole violation hearings in court.
"We don't harass them, but we do remind them they need to be extremely vigilant about where they are and who they're with," Baker, whose caseload can reach up to 25 sex offenders, says. "GPS is one the best ways to keep them in check. Honestly, I want to say it's the GPS and the fact they're under supervision that they aren't [reoffending]."
While Baker is often the object of sex offenders' frustration, many of their complaints are directed at the entire supervision system.
The GPS supervision is just one of many restrictions that frustrate sex offenders, Santistevan says. There are also the limitations on where they can live, where they can work and what events they can attend, as well as disclosures they must make, drug tests, field visits both at home and work, and the stigma they'll suffer for the rest of their lives.
"They feel it's very punitive," Santistevan says. "They say, 'I could've killed somebody and I wouldn't have this level of supervision.' Honestly, that's kind of true."
Understanding why a client committed the sex offense is part of his job, Santistevan says, but it's a challenge, he says, mentioning that he has a 6-year-old niece.
"You have to hear these stories in excruciating detail and it's a balance that you have to maintain," he says. "You can't be the bleeding heart and you can't be the hammer of justice."
But it's important to help offenders accept the realities of their situations and why the community may never trust them.
"I explain that they scare society very badly," Santistevan says. "If my house is being repossessed, I'm defaulting on my mortgage and I go rob a bank, nobody's saying it's OK to rob banks, but people kind of understand. You go commit a sex crime, it scares everybody to death because nobody understands that."
Baker and Santistevan agree that the ones to worry about are those who don't accept and feel remorse for their crimes. J would fit into this category; he maintains his innocence, claiming the charges were part of a scheme by his ex-wife. Otherwise, he has come to terms with his sentence.
Santistevan says that sex offenders are such a heterogeneous population—in their history, motives and will power—that compliance with electronic monitoring and progress in counseling sessions doesn't guarantee an offender won't cut his strap and go underground.
Of the thousands listed on the New Mexico Department of Public Safety's Sex Offender Registry, 43 sex offenders are classified currently as absconders. Few were on active GPS.
"You never see it coming," Santistevan says. "I've had clients who have been in stable jobs, stable living situations with family members—and they run."
On Sept. 12, Judith "Judge Judy" Sheindlin appeared on Larry King Live to discuss—in her words "kvetch"—about the recent case of a registered sex offender who allegedly kept a girl locked in a secret cellar in California for 18 years.
"The only way to rehab cure a pedophile is to kill him," Sheindlin told King. "There is no other cure…Unless you want to put him somewhere in the Sahara and make sure that they can't get away."
Sheindlin argued that building new prisons ought to be part of the stimulus package.
Local victims' advocates say they support Sheindlin's view, despite the Draconian attitude.
"Personally, philosophically, I agree with her," Santa Fe Rape Crisis & Trauma Treatment Center Executive Director Diane McWilliams tells SFR. "We're not safe from them. I would actually agree because we know their behavior is unpredictable, and we don't know if they will offend again. But, on the other hand, where do we stop as a society?"
Public safety advocates have floated ideas from lifetime incarceration to chemical castration—McWilliams is certainly interested in medical breakthroughs that may be able to control certain sexual impulses. But, as a former legislator in Delaware, McWilliams notes there's a thin line between tough-on-crime political posturing and genuine concern for public safety.
"If we're requiring them to report every hour and they can't get a job and they have no credit, we're basically encouraging them to go underground," McWilliams says. "That's just horrific…I think the answer is to know where they are and give them some ability to function."
Patti March, the founder of New Mexico Survivors of Homicide, worries layering restrictions upon sex offenders might exacerbate their impulses.
"It just seems logical that if somebody thinks they're going to be tracked for the rest of their life, they might just think, 'I better kill this person so I don't get caught,'" March says.
In the late 1990s, March was part of the first grassroots effort in New Mexico to release information regarding sex offenders. Initially, the group collected data from the Corrections Department about murderers and sex offenders who were coming up for parole. Eventually, the program became obsolete as the Corrections Department instituted an online database of inmates and the Department of Public Safety launched its online Sex Offender Registry.
Karen Herman, director of the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs' sexual assault service, says GPS tracking is an important tool for law enforcement, but questions the need to put the offenders' personal details, such as where they live and work, on the internet.
"We do know some surveillance coupled with treatment works to help some offenders from reoffending, but posting their address on a website is probably not the most effective way," she says.
Overall, Herman believes GPS monitoring may provide a false sense of security.
"To the public, it's the stranger that we have to be aware of and that stranger needs to be tracked because they could commit an assault," Herman says. But "often the offender is someone known to the victim and they have a range of ways they can gain access to that victim."
March also wonders if focusing only on sexual offenses distracts from greater problems in the criminal justice system. Like Santistevan's clients, March asks why sex offenders receive much higher supervision than those who commit other violent crimes, such as murder.
"My son was murdered in 1995 and, to this day, I wish my son had only been molested," March says. "He could have been molested 10 times, but he would be here and he could work on that issue."
Albuquerque-based attorney Kari Morrissey has a near-perfect record when it comes to defending clients accused of sexual offenses.
Not a single one of her clients is under sex-offender supervision, she says; she either successfully negotiates plea deals in which her client pleads to a lesser violent crime, without the sexual enhancement, or she takes it to trial and wins acquittals.
Hypothetically speaking, if one of Morrissey's clients were convicted of a sex crime under the new five-to-20-year parole laws, she says, on appeal, it is "very likely" the courts would rule these laws to be unconstitutional. In particular, she says the law isn't clear on whether the state's Corrections Department has the authority to reincarcerate an offender who has finished his prison sentence but violated the terms of the extended parole.
"These laws are too new to have the circumstances challenged and really closely looked at by our higher courts," Morrissey says. "These were passed by the Legislature and they don't have the stamp of support of the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals."
Although Morrissey sits on the opposite side of the courtroom as victims' advocates, philosophically she shares a lot in common with them, particularly when it comes to public understanding of the underlying issues.
"For most people who are on some type of supervision, the offense took place between them and a family member, so how is GPS monitoring going to make a difference?" Morrissey says. "The community at large has the perception that these sex offenders are running around and hanging out at elementary schools and stalking strangers, and that's just not true."
Morrissey echoes March's concern that GPS tracking may be more effective in controlling ex-convicts who aren't guilty of sex offenses.
"If you want to cut down on crime, you should outfit offenders guilty of other crimes," Morrissey says. "With breaking into cars and houses, [GPS tracking] would actually be effective."
US Bureau of Justice Statistics research supports Morrissey's case. An oft-cited 10-year study released in 2004 found that only 43 percent of sex offenders were rearrested within three years of their release, compared to 68 percent for non-sex offenders. Of the sex offenders, only 5.3 percent were rearrested for another sex crime.
Melissa Hill, a criminal appeals attorney who represents the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico on the Sentencing Commission's Sex Offender Management Board, is advocating legislative changes to the law to allow for risk assessment of each offender to determine which ones would best be served by active electronic monitoring.
"Until we shift our policies…we're going to be watching a lot of people we don't need to watch and not spending enough time watching the people we need to watch," Hill says.
Ultimately, Hill says the parole board should be allowed to make case-by-case decisions as to which offenders should be tracked with active GPS versus passive GPS. With passive monitoring, the devices still collect the GPS data, but the offenders must make regular visits to their parole officers, who can then download the information.
Broader passive GPS tracking would also cut down on what First Judicial District Judge Michael Vigil, who chairs the Sex Offender Management Board, describes as a "quite expensive" program. The cost to actively monitor a sex offender for the minimum five years of parole is more than $15,000; passive GPS costs half as much and the savings could be redirected toward more treatment or more parole officers.
This switch also would address a disparity emerging between urban and rural offenders.
"Sex offenders are ending up spending their parole in prison because they come from a part of the state where there isn't the technology to provide real-time monitoring," Hill says. "It actually prevents parole completely because the state isn't able to comply with [the law]."
"Sometimes there is less availability of cell phone reception [on the pueblos and reservations]," Frank says. "I can't say whether it happens disproportionately, but it does happen on occasion."
Hill doubts many of these ideas will make it to the Legislature. The Sex Offender Management Board has sent many of these recommendations to the Sentencing Commission, which has in turn bounced them back to the board.
"We can make recommendations until we're blue in the case, but if the Sentencing Commission doesn't have to adopt our recommendations, then the Legislature doesn't have to enact any laws to comply with the policies we recommend," Hill says. "The board might be useful, but it's toothless."
While GPS can't show a parole officer what an offender is doing, it can prove what he hasn't done.
It's generally true, Baker says, that when a violent or sexual crime occurs, sex offenders living in the surrounding neighborhoods are often the first suspects. GPS provides strong alibis.
In a recent murder case in which a Nambé woman was accused of stabbing her mother to death, the defense attempted to pin the crime on her ex-boyfriend, Joseph Herrera, a registered sex offender convicted in 1999 of third-degree criminal sexual conduct of a minor.
Herrera's GPS logs exonerated him.
"When it happened, we got a call advising us what was going on, so we just ran the tracking," Baker says. "He was at his house at the time it happened and that was pretty much black and white."
The GPS also can protect sex offenders from accusations made by vengeful ex-relations.
"I have had clients whose disgruntled girlfriends have accused them of crimes, battery, violating parole and Terry Baker can look it up see that [the client] wasn't even there," Santistevan says. "That doesn't make my guys appreciate their GPS much, though."
Advocates for sex offender rights concede the monitoring system has its benefits. Alice Benson, a co-director of Citizens for Change New Mexico, which acts as an advocacy and support group for sex offenders, recalls an incident with an offender she hires to chop wood in her backyard.
Due to his GPS device, his parole officer caught him drinking at a party. He went back to prison for a few months and hasn't violated his parole since.
"I think he learned his lesson," Benson says. "So, that was one advantage."
Eighteen years after 11-year-old Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped in northern California, parole officers discovered she was with Phillip Garrido, a registered sex offender. El Dorado County sheriff's deputies arrested Garrido and soon information emerged that despite twice-monthly home visits, parole officers failed to discover the backyard shed where Dugard was kept.
Would modern technology have helped free Dugard earlier?
The quick answer is: probably. Parole officers could have looked up every sex offender's whereabouts that summer day in 1991 to identify which one had passed by Dugard's school bus stop where she was snatched. Failing that, they could have hauled in every offender whose GPS monitor was out of service.
At New Mexico's parole response center, Tennant dreams about real-time satellite imaging, which would allow him to zoom in and see not only where the offender is, but who he's with and what he's doing—yet another way of stopping a Dugard scenario.
Tennant also looks forward to the day that the state Corrections Department can implant offenders with sub-dermal GPS devices. The devices would monitor whether an offender has drugs or alcohol in his blood stream and would cut down on tampering.
"Offenders would have to dig it out with a knife," he says.
It sounds very Big Brother.
Tennant leans forward in his desk chair and says, "And that's the way we like it." SFR
Web Extra: Accountability and the Sex Offender
Like it or not, more than 90 sex offenders convicted of a range of offenses live and work in Santa Fe County under heavy supervision. C., who served seven years in prison for criminal sexual contact of a minor, says that the community is justified in its fear of offenders. Yet, as he writes in this essay for SFR, he says he hopes sex offenders can earn the community's trust through taking responsibility for their actions.
The transition from being a prisoner to re-entering society is, in itself, an exercise in a combination of fear, anxiety, hope and courage. Most men leave prison with only a bus ticket and a few dollars.
You’ve served your time and now you’re thrust once again into the real world, desperately in need of food, clothing and shelter. Employment becomes paramount—without a job, survival becomes much more difficult for anybody.
Some states have taken a closer look at the numerous problems facing newly released ex-offenders. In most cases, however, there are very few resources and/or agencies available to offer assistance. Without such assistance and support, many men wind up returning to prison.
I am a registered sex offender. Although I did not have to wear the GPS-monitored ankle bracelet (due to the serving of all my sentence plus parole time while incarcerated) I still have to register with the sheriff’s department, inform any employer in writing that I am a registered sex offender, disclose to my landlord the same thing and duly notify, within 10 days, the authorities if I change jobs or residences, under penalty of law.
Those regulations are understandably stringent and failure to abide does, indeed, result in a fourth-degree felony automatically. Accountability is a necessary quality for those who must abide by such regulations.
Although I ran the risk of not getting hired or obtaining a place to stay, I was counseled and encouraged to disclose immediately to any potential employer or landlord my status as a registered sex offender. The old adage, “Honesty is the best policy,” is as true in this respect today as any factor.
Generally, and again, understandably, public reaction to sex offenders is nearly unanimously negative. Fear, concern and disgust usually prevent any possible dialogue or interaction. I have learned, however, that accountability and honest disclosure can soften the most skeptical heart. I have a decent job and housing, I am law-abiding, I try to be an asset to my community and continue to be accountable by accepting responsibility for my actions, past and present.
Here in Santa Fe, only a few groups and people have the courage and understanding necessary to assist and work with registered sex offenders. Some, as for example, HOPE HOWSE International and its founder, Jane Davis, have worked for years to assist those who’ve paid their dues to society.
Sex offenders deserve a chance to prove themselves. As with any set of people it is difficult to know with certainty that someone may re-offend. Acceptance of responsibility for my mistakes and daily accountability for my actions along with tolerance from other members of my community make that likelihood remote and unthinkable.