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GPS Used to Track Sex Offenders in Washington State

by Matt Clarke

Like firefighters and airline pilots, the ten Washington Department of Corrections community correction officers (CCOs) assigned to monitor high-risk sex offenders in King County via Global Positioning System (GPS) hope for a really boring day at work. Otherwise, if it isn’t boring, bad things are usually happening.

What they hope to see is GPS-monitored sex offenders going to and from work, stores, church and their homes while avoiding “exclusion zones.” A computer aids the CCOs in determining where the sex offenders have been and whether they visited a park or school area, which is prohibited.

“The only way a person can offend sexually is to have a cloud of secrecy about them,” said Theo Lewis , head of the King County Special Assault Supervision Unit. “This blows that cloud away, and it’s highly effective in allowing the CCO to intervene before [sex offenders] get to a point where they are going to reoffend.”

Critics point to the February 21, 2009 slaying of a 13-year-old girl by a homeless GPS-monitored sex offender in Vancouver, Washington. They note that GPS tracking doesn’t indicate when a sex offender is likely to commit a crime, and gives the CCOs – and members of the public – a false sense of security by knowing the location of sex offenders but not their intentions or what they are doing. Prison officials concede that GPS monitoring is not the sole solution.

“We’ve said all along that no technology, including GPS, can prevent an offender from committing a new crime. It can, however, help our officers hold offenders accountable for where they’ve been. Before GPS, it was more difficult to know if an offender had been somewhere he is not allowed to be,” said Dept. of Corrections spokesman Chad Lewis.

GPS monitoring is a useful tool because it might alert a CCO to changes in a sex offender’s normal pattern, triggering a closer look at what the offender is doing. There are two types of monitoring: active and passive. Active includes real-time tracking of an offender’s movements, while passive involves after-the-fact verification, such as once a day. The CCOs in King County use passive monitoring.

The GPS program was initiated at the urging of Governor Chris Gregoire after Zina Linnik, a 12-year-old Tacoma girl, was murdered by a sex offender in 2007. Prison officials implemented mandatory GPS monitoring for the state’s most dangerous Level 3 sex offenders on October 2, 2008. Currently, over 120 high-risk offenders are monitored via GPS in Washington State. Most are Level 3 or homeless; a few are Level 2 with special needs.

The GPS ankle bracelets buzz or vibrate when a sex offender enters an exclusion zone such as a park or school, or a permissible inclusion zone such as the offender’s home or work place. Each monitoring device costs about $1,500; at least 27 states require GPS tracking for released sex offenders.

Theo Lewis said most offenders don’t commit a crime while being monitored. If they remove the tracking bracelet, a nationwide warrant is immediately issued for their arrest. Such was the case with a Snohomish County sex offender who was later captured in Texas after trying to abscond. Still, the CCOs would rather have a boring day.

Sources: Seattle Times, CNN

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