Posts Tagged ‘GPS’

For several years now there’s been a lot of buzz about tracking offenders using Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology. Knowing where offenders are located, or where they’ve been, can help correctional agencies better monitor probationers – or so the idea goes.


Unfortunately, this hasn’t always worked as well as people believe  it should, especially in California where literally thousands of high risk offenders are easily absconding from monitoring. The reasons for these problems are complicated, and they vary by jurisdiction.

Now, though, there’s a new version of this technology available for use in domestic violence and stalking cases that relies on the concept of proximity-based networking to alert victims that a perpetrator is dangerously close.

A system of this type is currently being piloted by the county that serves the city of St. Paul in Minnesota (PDF).

The idea is simple: Since the perpetrator and victim are known to each other in these types of cases, the perpetrator can be fitted with an ankle bracelet that’s matched with a sensor carried by the victim. If the perpetrator enters a restricted area, the sensor triggers an alert that is sent by email or text message to the victim. The police are automatically notified as well.

There’s also a notification if the perpetrator tampers with or removes the ankle bracelet.

The Minnesota trial of this system continues, but the plan is to expand its use to other types of offenses if all goes well.

What are your thoughts or concerns about this technology and how it’s being applied in these cases?

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I just wrapped up teaching a course called Technology in Criminal Justice, and it was a real eye-opener for both me and my students. One theme that became absolutely clear was that technology cannot replace human intervention, no matter how much we’d like that to be the case. At least not yet, it can’t. It also can’t save us from our inherent human fallibility.

system error

Everywhere we look, though, we see governments and vendors touting technologies as a primary way to thwart crime. The downsides of any of these technologies are rarely discussed, except when something goes wrong. For example, ARS Technica recently reported on thousands of paroled sex offenders easily disabling the GPS tracking devices they were ordered to wear. Ugh.

But, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Debacles such as the Department of Homeland Security’s failed multi-million dollar program to use technology to secure the US-Mexican border highlight the sometimes overwhelming management challenges of developing such complex technologies.

Smaller failures, such as have occurred with  facial recognition technology, emergency dispatch systems, tasers, drones even police radio systems – highlight the many ways that an over-reliance on technology can cause as many problems as it solves.

In fact, the false sense of security these technologies engender is making society less safe, not more.

We trust that any technology the criminal justice system employs is not only going to work, it’s going to be an improvement over what came before. In other words, more technology equals more safety in many people’s minds. The fact that technology is so fallible and can fail at the worst possible time puts us at increased risk.

I’m no Luddite, but I am a proponent of thoughtful and careful implementation of new technologies. I’m also a staunch proponent of accounting for the human component of any new endeavor, be it a technology or any other innovation.

So, what are your thoughts on technology in criminal justice: boon or boondoggle?