Corrections officials critical of expanded sex offender monitoringby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota lawmakers will consider spending millions of dollars to electronically monitor sex offenders. Global positioning satellite, or GPS, can track offenders 24 hours a day.
About 20 sex offenders now wear the GPS monitors in Minnesota. Some legislators and Gov. Pawlenty want to put the monitors on hundreds of offenders, but Department of Corrections employees say that might be a waste of money.
Moorhead, Minn. — The Minnesota Department of Corrections currently has about 20 Level 3 sex offenders wearing GPS monitors, which are often worn around the ankle. These men are considered the most dangerous sex offenders. They're required to wear an electronic monitor for at least 90 days after they get out of prison.
Proposals to be considered in the upcoming legislative session would expand GPS monitoring to more than 300 sex offenders.
The Department of Corrections says there are 582 Level 2 sex offenders, and 96 Level 3 sex offenders, currently living in Minnesota. The department's Mike Fall says putting a GPS monitor on all those sex offenders is a bad idea. Fall supervises the agents who monitor sex offenders in communities across northern Minnesota.
Fall worries GPS monitoring is a political -- rather than a practical -- solution.
"The public likes quick fixes and this appears to be a quick fix," says Fall. "The reality is it's a tool, but it's not a quick fix. It doesn't solve all problems. It does not prevent offenders from committing crimes."
Fall says GPS monitoring is a good tool when it's used selectively on the most dangerous sex offenders. But he worries the cost of widespread GPS monitoring will divert resources from other programs that have already proven their effectiveness, primarily intensive supervision programs.
Department of Corrections officials say intensive monitoring costs $20 per day for each offender.
Offenders under intensive supervision can expect an agent to visit any time of the day or night. Their home can be searched for things like pornography or drugs.
"We know that random agent contacts work, we know that random drug and alcohol testing works," says Fall. "These are proven things, and I would hate to see us put our financial resources into electronic monitoring at the expense of maintaining those other resources."
Some people think GPS monitors will deter sex offenders from committing crime. The evidence isn't clear, according to criminologists who study sex offender programs.
Several academic studies found offenders who wear a GPS monitor commit new crimes at about the same rate as those who don't wear a monitor. A recent study in Florida found offenders wearing an electronic monitor are less likely to commit a new crime.
There are two primary types of GPS monitoring. The system that's currently most often used in Minnesota is called passive monitoring.
The offender wears a GPS monitor, usually around his ankle. The monitor uses signals from global positioning satellites to store a map of the offender's movements throughout the day. Once or twice a day, that information is downloaded to a computer. The technology for passive monitoring for an individual offender costs about $10 per day.
The second system is what's known as active monitoring. The offender wears the same type of monitor on his ankle, and the monitor is tracked by global positioning satellites. But that information is transmitted every few minutes by cell phone to a tracking center. Staff at the tracking center, often in another state, monitor the offender's whereabouts. They can track the person's movements almost in real time.
If they see an alarm, which means the offender is somewhere he's not supposed to be, or if the signal is lost, a Minnesota parole agent is contacted to check on the offender's whereabouts.
Active monitoring is the system many legislators prefer, but it costs more than passive monitoring -- between $14-$17 per day.
Corrections supervisor Mike Fall says the active system causes false alarms. False alarms can happen when the signal is lost or the equipment fails, but those false alarms all need to be checked out by an agent.
Fall says some offenders have already found ways to defeat the GPS system. They've learned tricks to make the system think they're at home when they're not. Fall says those cheating the system have always been discovered after a short time, but it makes more work for the supervising agent.
Ken Merz, director of administrative programs at the Corrections Department, agrees GPS monitoring increases the workload for agents. He says putting more offenders on GPS monitoring will mean more false alarms consuming agents' time.
"You cannot ignore that. You have to go check it out," says Merz. "In the outstate areas, that could mean quite a distance that agent will have to drive to check on something that may very well be a technology problem."
Merz says GPS monitoring of all Level 2 and 3 sex offenders would require hundreds of new field agents. Under the present system, one agent supervises 15 offenders. But Merz says if all offenders wear GPS monitors, the department would need twice as many agents. Each one would only be able to supervise seven offenders, because GPS monitoring means more work for agents.
Merz says agents have to look at computer reports to be sure the offender hasn't violated parole by going to a restricted area like a school, a shopping mall, or a home. They also need to respond to false alarms.
Merz says expanded GPS monitoring would mean hiring about 250 new agents over the next five years. He says 100 agents would be needed this year, and 50 agents would be added each of the next five years as more sex offenders get out of prison. Paying for 250 additional agents would cost about $25 million a year.
"We feel the way we are currently doing it -- putting what we consider to be the highest risk, the most dangerous, on GPS at this point in time -- has been very effective," says Merz. "When you widen that net and put people on that GPS system, in most cases it (GPS) probably isn't really necessary to supervise them."
Merz says Minnesota's current intensive supervision program for sex offenders is very effective. He says less than 1 percent of offenders commit new crimes while on intensive supervision.
But there's clearly a need to better protect the public from sex offenders, says State Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Plymouth, who is sponsoring the proposal to expand GPS monitoring to all Level 2 and 3 sex offenders.
"The system we have right now, while it's not completely broken, could be much better, and here's one way (GPS monitoring) of making it better," says Johnson.
Johnson, who is running for state attorney general, has suggested the monitoring would cost about $3.8 million a year. That doesn't include the cost of hiring extra parole agents, a number Johnson says he's waiting for the Department of Corrections to provide.
Rep. Johnson says it may be true that relatively few sex offenders under intensive supervision commit new crimes. But he thinks GPS monitors can deter offenders from committing a new crime.
"Maybe the recidivism rate isn't significant. But if we can reduce it, and avoid another horrible situation where a little kid is abducted, that's worth some of my tax dollars, I think," says Johnson.
Johnson says he's waiting to hear from the Department of Corrections how much his proposal will cost. He says if it proves to be too expensive, he'll scale back the legislation.
Johnson says the Department of Corrections might have some legitimate concerns about GPS monitoring, but he thinks there's also what he calls bureaucratic opposition to trying anything new.
Johnson says he would prefer Department of Corrections staff find ways to make expanded GPS monitoring work.
Gov. Pawlenty has supported Rep. Johnson's proposal in the past. The governor was not available for an interview for this story. It's unclear if concerns about GPS monitoring within the Department of Corrections will affect the governor's support for the legislation.
Harley Nelson, deputy corrections commissioner, says GPS is clearly a valuable tool and he expects the department to use it more in the future. But he says it's important to understand the limitations of GPS, and realize that just putting GPS monitors on all sex offenders won't necessarily increase public safety.
"My preference is that some of that discretion (for use of GPS monitoring) is left to the professionals," says Nelson. "I know that politicians always have the right to make a decision and say, 'All of this category will be on GPS.' I understand that right, and we would go along and implement that. It's their job to make the policy, it's our job to implement it."
Minnesota is one of many states debating this issue. Lawmakers will take it up next month. Rep. Johnson says there's strong support among his fellow lawmakers for his plan to expand GPS monitoring of sex offenders.
- All Things Considered, 02/22/2006, 5:20 p.m.