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Texas leads nation in use of satellite tracking

GPS devices help monitor movements of high-risk offenders

Goodlett sitting at desk. He is pointing at screen on laptop computer.
With GPS monitoring, Tyler parole officer Taylor Goodlett can pinpoint the location of an offender on his laptop computer screen. A miniature tracking device worn by offenders on passive GPS monitoring sits on a slip of paper just to the right of Goodlett’s computer.

Photo by David Nunnelee

When TDCJ District Parole Officer Taylor Goodlett looks at his laptop computer screen each morning, he normally sees a lot of little green dots. The dots tell him exactly where a high-risk offender on his caseload had gone the day before and that he was, in fact, authorized to travel to those locations. Red dots, on the other hand, alert him that the offender might have gone astray.

Goodlett is one of four officers working out of the Parole Division’s Region I central office in Tyler who use global positioning system (GPS) devices as part of their jobs. The technology is used to monitor the movements of high-risk offenders assigned to the agency’s Super Intensive Supervision Program (SISP) by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP).

“What GPS does for me is that in a matter of minutes I can track where my offender has been all day long,” Goodlett said.

TDCJ utilizes GPS for the monitoring of high-risk offenders more than any other criminal justice agency in the nation. Its use stems from legislation passed by Texas lawmakers in 1997 that instructed the agency to establish a program to provide super intensive supervision for offenders at the highest risk of committing further crimes as determined by the BPP. More than 1,400 SISP offenders are now being monitored by way of either active or passive GPS devices throughout the state. They include sex offenders, prison gang leaders, as well as offenders with histories of violent assaults and extensive prison disciplinary records.

Most of these offenders were not actually paroled but, instead, released under sentencing laws which provided for release when calendar time served plus good time earned equaled length of sentence. In other cases, the offenders met all requirements for release.

“SISP is the highest level of supervision that the state of Texas can offer, short of an offender being in prison,” said Region I Director Jay Patzke. “It’s dedicated specifically to offenders that pose the greatest risk to the public.”

How GPS Works

Before their release from prison, offenders to be monitored by active or passive GPS devices are fitted with an ankle bracelet that resembles an oversized wristwatch without a face. The jet-black bracelet made from hard, waterproof plastic, sends out a signal to a portable tracking device the offender either wears on his belt or carries with him. Once encoded, the tracking device itself is tracked around the clock by a satellite controlled by a company the agency contracts with for surveillance services.

With the active system, data from a tracking device is downloaded live, giving a parole officer a real-time look at an offender’s movements. It is reserved for offenders with the highest risk factors. Tracking information from the passive system can be downloaded every six to 12 hours. Downloading begins once an offender arrives home ahead of curfew and places the device in a base unit. Officers then review the data the following morning on their computer screens. Green dots pinpoint the offender’s location throughout the day within a 20-foot radius and green arrows point out the direction traveled on roadways. Officers can even read the rate of speed at which an offender drove and send him a text message on his tracking device warning him to slow down if necessary.

But should there be an unexplainable disconnect between the three main GPS components at anytime, day or night, an alert is sent to the satellite vendor, the Parole Division’s Warrants Section in Austin, and the supervising parole office. Alerts are also swiftly dispatched if an offender breaks curfew or travels to locations outside those approved in advance by his parole officer. Sex offenders with child safety zone requirements, for example, cannot come within 500 feet of a school or any other facility where children commonly gather. Also, a violent offender must steer well clear of the neighborhood in which the person he victimized lives.

“Somebody is actually watching the offender 24 hours a day,” Patzke said about offenders monitored by passive GPS. “If he were to leave, it would send out an alert right then. We would then issue a warrant either locally or from the warrants center in Austin. Part of the beauty of the system is that everybody has access to it.”

A Real Timesaver

For field officers, GPS monitoring saves time. Before its introduction, they might have had to drive long distances to verify that an offender wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet was at an approved location by conducting what they call a “drive-by.” Without the offender’s knowledge, the officer would drive by designated location and fire a signal from a receiver that would display the offender’s bracelet number if, in fact, he was present.
“With GPS, the officer can now pull up the screen and watch exactly what road he goes down and where he is going at all times,” Goodlett said. “So it eliminates the officer having to physically go out and verify the location of the offender. It improves time management.”
GPS monitoring, in fact, has reduced the number of contacts a parole officer must have with an SISP offender each month from 15 to nine. However, officers still meet face-to-face with SISP offenders at least once a week at their offices and at the home of the offenders.
“GPS has not replaced the offender case management contacts, but it has made things more mobile in that we can do verifications from the office,” Patzke said. “Now we know where an offender is 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Before, we had to do random checks. It took a lot more time. Officers were driving 60 to 70 miles just to do one check. And they were doing that weekly.”

Expanded Service?

Of the 77,000 offenders now on supervision in Texas, active GPS devices now monitor fewer than 30. Just a handful of offenders are actively tracked within Region I, which is made up of 62 East Texas counties containing approximately 14,000 offenders supervised from 16 different office locations. The remaining 320 SISP offenders in Region I are monitored by the passive GPS devices. Offenders not assigned to SISP can be placed on a regular caseload or supervised in part through electronic monitoring (EM) devices, which records only the times he leaves and arrives back home.

District Parole Officer Edna Douglas supervises eight releasees on electronic monitoring and eight on GPS out of the Tyler office. She and fellow officer Larry Martin favor GPS over EM because of its ability to track offenders. And each believes its use might well be extended to people who commit the same crime repeatedly.

It now costs the state $9.95 a day for each offender on active GPS supervision. Passive GPS supervision costs $4.41 a day, and electronic monitoring $2.16 a day per offender. Patzke said expanding GPS usage might strain the current number of parole officers since those with SISP caseloads now supervise far fewer offenders than their counterparts with regular caseloads.

“It’s very intensive in terms of personnel,” Patzke said about GPS supervision. “An average caseload of a parole officer is around 75 people. The officers who supervise SISP offenders carry around 15 to 20 people.

All agree that GPS monitoring has proven effective during its four years of use in Texas. Patzke and Region I Assistant Director Rodney Adams said the restrictions attached to GPS monitoring appear especially rehabilitative to offenders who may never before have had to adhere to a structured lifestyle. For the most part, GPS offenders can travel only to their jobs, to the parole office, and to treatment providers. Everything else, including trips to the grocery store, must be scheduled. Any deviation from their approved daily schedule sounds the alert.

“It basically forces them to lead normal lives,” Patzke said. “For the vast majority of them, if they’re on it for awhile, it appears to change the structure of their lives. And it’s part of our mission to help them do that.”
“I would say it’s a plus to the offender,” Adams added. “There’s a lot of things that we allow an offender to do because we can track and monitor him. This allows us the flexibility to where we can still be secure and protect the public.”

Patzke said SISP offenders are reviewed annually to monitor their progress on GPS. He says he regularly receives recommendations from officers within his region for offenders doing well on the system to be removed from the state’s highest level of supervision by the BPP. He said employers interested in promoting SISP offenders to higher level jobs also write to ask that their performing employees be moved to a lower level of supervision.

“For a lot of them, this is the first time they have actually experienced success,” Patzke said about offenders who have learned to adapt to having their every move tracked electronically. “It just adds that structure and motivation for them to lead a normal lifestyle. And it works to the offender’s advantage because we can see where he’s at and what he’s doing and where he’s been. If you know your parole officer can see where you’re at and he’s not having to walk into your place of employment and check on you visually like we were doing, that makes your life a lot easier, too. It’s a plus both ways.”

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