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The New Ball & Chain

New Mexico’s laws keep sex offenders under lock and signal

September 23, 2009, 12:00 am

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.”

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