Why GPS tracking is good news for inmates.

Science, technology, and life.
May 7 2005 2:42 AM

Call My Cell

Why GPS tracking is good news for inmates.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
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Four days ago, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed a law slapping child molesters with a minimum prison sentence of 25 years "followed by probation or community control for the remainder of the person's natural life." During such probation, the offender must "be electronically monitored." Grope a 15-year-old, and you'll be wearing a satellite-linked ankle bracelet that tells the cops where you are every minute until the day you die.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

These Global Positioning System (or GPS) monitors are the latest rage in crime-fighting. Jurisdictions in half the states are reportedly using them. The Journal of Offender Monitoring (yes, that's its name) estimates the monitored population at 120,000. Lawmakers promote GPS as high-tech medievalism, a way to get tough on perverts who can't be kept in jail. But the economics of the "offender-monitoring industry" tell a different story. Most jurisdictions are buying GPS not to confine criminals, but to release them.

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Politicians make a big show of imposing GPS on predators after a child has been killed and the community is up in arms. That's what happened in Massachusetts a few months ago, when a sex offender murdered a 12-year-old and her mother. The slaying of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford prompted passage of the bill in Florida. But GPS tracking costs money: usually $8 to $12 per person per day, according to figures quoted to county and state governments. That's three or four grand a year. Still, it's many times less than the cost of incarceration. So, while there may be an occasional public-outrage incentive to impose GPS on offenders who will be out of jail anyway, there's a constant financial incentive to impose it on those who are in jail—and let them out.

Visit the home pages of the major GPS firms and you'll see what's up. "For just a fraction of the cost of incarceration, you can reach your ultimate goal of public safety," says Pro Tech Monitoring. On iSECUREtrac's list of "Applications/Solutions," sex offenders rank third. The top two advertised applications are "Budget Concerns" and "Prison Overcrowding." The same two items head the list at BI Incorporated. "The average cost of keeping an inmate in jail is approximately $100 per day," observes iSECUREtrac. "Solving a situation like this normally requires increased funding, but increased funding usually means raising taxes, and raising taxes is rarely a popular political response." BI adds, "By sentencing 100 offenders to alternative sanctions rather than jail or prison, agencies can significantly decrease their spending."

This is the pitch law-enforcement officials are getting all over the country. Run a newspaper search and you'll find scores of back-page articles about this or that county looking at GPS to solve a budget or jail-crowding problem. In these articles—as opposed to front-page stories about hunting down child rapists—politicians hem and haw to avoid looking soft on crime. My favorite is a report in the Albuquerque Tribune two months ago. In the third paragraph, the chairman of the county commission insists GPS is "not a substitute for incarceration. It's an extension." Ten paragraphs later, he points out that GPS saves money on juvenile lockups.

By and large, it isn't the most dangerous inmates who are getting GPS anklets. It's the least dangerous ones. They're the first to be let out of jail when money and space run low. One hundred state and local jurisdictions are reportedly using GPS to track nonviolent juvenile offenders. You think that's hard on the kids? Think again. It lets them go to school. And consider the alternatives. Some kids in the California youth system have been put in cages. People living near a juvenile delinquent "ranch" in Santa Clara County want a fence to keep kids inside. Officials there hope GPS can solve the problem less drastically.

Last month in Ohio, a Hamilton County commissioner told the Cincinnati Enquirer that GPS was an "electronic jail." "You just plug in the coordinates of the places they're allowed to go" and "the hours they're supposed to be at work and the hours they're supposed to be at home," he said. But any system that lets you go home or to a regular workplace is a better deal than jail. Johnson County, Iowa, offers GPS to inmates applying for work release so that more applications can be granted. When the Associated Press asked a paroled burglar in Georgia about the GPS device he wears to work, he pointed out that it's an improvement on the nine years he spent behind bars.

What worries some civil libertarians about Florida's GPS tracking is that it's permanent. But for sex offenders, permanent constraints are nothing new. They're required to register everywhere they go. Cities commonly set up zoning restrictions to limit their movement. Miami Beach is trying to make it impossible for them to live there. Eight states allow chemical "castration," though courts require the convict's consent. One of every three states allows "civil commitment," which keeps sexually violent predators in jail even after they've finished their sentences, to protect the public. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld this practice.

Look at the historical trend. We used to kill child molesters. Then we decided we didn't have to kill them, since we could imprison them for life. Then it turned out we didn't have to imprison them for life, since we could put them on radio-frequency monitors that kept them home. Now we don't have to keep them home, since GPS lets us track them wherever they go. The longer the leash, the greater their freedom.

This is why the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida supported that state's GPS bill. As the organization's director explained, "Electronic monitoring can be an effective tool much preferable for many offenders than just needless incarceration." Remember when George H.W. Bush joked that ACLU stood for "Allowing Criminals to Leave Unsupervised"? Now the joke's on him. Under the law his son just signed, sex offenders can leave prison without constant in-person supervision, because GPS is on the job.