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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

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.”

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MG Bralley

Bill Tennant demonstrates the GPS tracking software at the Corrections Department’s response center.

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.”

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