The Emergence of Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) Systems in Correctional Applications

By Downing, Hugh | Corrections Today, October 2006 | Go to article overview

The Emergence of Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) Systems in Correctional Applications


Downing, Hugh, Corrections Today


It has been 11 years since 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by a twice-convicted sex offender who lived across the street. Since that terrible event, many lives have changed. Parents now seem to be more watchful of their children. Neighbors are alert to strangers who seem to take undue interest in children. Many children seem more aware of the actions of older children and adults that may be frightening or inappropriate. New Jersey passed the first "Megan's Law" 89 days after her disappearance, and a federal law, also known as Megan's Law, was passed in 1996. Today, every state has its own version of this law. Other laws, both state and federal, such as the Jacob Wetterling Act, require registration of sex offenders upon release.

As a result, the life of the convicted, paroled or released sex offender has changed. Through this registration process, communities may be made aware of the presence of convicted sex offenders who may pose a risk to public safety. With the posting of offenders' names, pictures and criminal histories on state Web sites, released sex offenders, particularly those convicted of violent or repetitive assaults, should no longer be able to blend into the crowd and become anonymous. Like the officer in Franz Kafka's 1919 short story, "In the Penal Colony," who throws himself on his own torture machine to have his crimes carved into his skin, the crimes of sex offenders are now visible for all to see.

However, sex offender registration has its limits and flaws, such as offenders refusing to register or assuming aliases or using some other method to circumvent registration. How can communities ensure that these former offenders do not re-offend while blending anonymously into the neighborhood?

Relying on the federal version of Megan's Law, which requires all 50 states to provide information regarding sex offender release, also has failed to solve the problem because the federal legislation does not require "active" notification. This means that the information is released, but it must be accessed and processed on the initiative of individual community members. There are no requirements that each family in a community be notified, so if they do not take the time to check sex offender Web sites, they may be unaware of offenders in their area.

A number of methods have been proposed to deal with this problem. One of the most controversial is the establishment of "pedophile-free zones." This is done by setting distance limits from places such as schools, parks and playgrounds within which convicted sex offenders, especially pedophiles, are forbidden to live. Although this may sound like a possible solution, such restrictions are not meeting most legal challenges because these zones are so spread throughout the community that a convicted sex offender can effectively be prevented from living anywhere in a community or entire town. If viewed in the extreme, offender-free zones could, in effect, end up creating sex-offender communities, isolating all released offenders in these permitted areas. Enforced isolation of this type may be in violation of constitutional rights.

The question of legality also must be considered in terms of keeping convicted sex offenders from returning to society through the use of sexual predator commitment laws or sexual predator civil confinement laws. Indefinite confinement is not the answer, and released offenders have proved that mandatory registration is avoidable. So, what will work?

The use of global positioning satellite (GPS) system monitoring may play a large part in the accomplishment of expanded monitoring. GPS monitoring would permit law enforcement and parole officers to have daily or, if necessary, instantaneous access to a released offender's whereabouts and notification if the offender leaves a permitted area or enters a forbidden area such as a park, playground or school.

The need to monitor other offender populations also has been examined recently. …

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