Accuracy in Media

Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Florida legislators made national news on May 2 with the signing of the Jessica Lunsford Act, a “get tough” piece of legislation targeting sex offenders.  The move came after the much-publicized abduction, assault and murder of two Florida girls.

Under the new law, sex offenders whose victims are 12 and younger will go to prison for a minimum of 25 years to life. (Currently the maximum is 30 years.) Those who are released from prison would be electronically monitored for life. These tougher penalties will only apply to sex offenders who are convicted after the new law takes effect in September. Offenders who are currently on probation and violate that probation could also be required to be electronically monitored for life.

While the tougher sentencing is a welcome change, there has been no critical media attention paid to the other part of the legislation which has been highly and unquestioningly praised: electronic tracking of offenders. Exactly what does “monitored for life” mean? It sounds impressive, and no doubt it’s designed to put communities at ease.

When electronic tracking of probationers is discussed in the media the term “24/7” or “continuous” tracking is often used. In addition, the term “GPS” is often referenced. The public, is often led by politicians and manufacturers alike, to believe that probationers being electronically monitored have their movements scrutinized by law enforcement 24 hours a day. Currently, many probationers are monitored by “passive” GPS tracking devices. In this scenario, an electronic anklet is worn in addition to a belt-pack device. As with all electronic monitoring, separating the devices will cause an alarm to be sent to authorities. The belt-pack does track the movements of the probationer “24/7,” but that information is not available to law enforcement until the end of the day, when the individual returns home and places the belt-pack in a ‘cradle’ at which time the data then downloads over the phone line. In some cases, the data is not available until the next day. In other words, it’s useful primarily as a prosecution tool. Other electronic monitoring devices only monitor the individual within their home.

The Washington Post noted several times that probationers would be tracked by GPS, but to be clear, the Florida legislation does not mention “GPS” technology, just “active tracking.” The reason for the omission of the term “GPS” is to allow for future tracking technology that might out-perform GPS, AIM was told. The contract would be up for bid, and most likely would go to a GPS-type system rather than a radio-frequency identification (RFID) system. An “active tracking” system would track the probationer again, “24/7” but that may not mean what you think it does. When questioned by AIM about the monitoring of the tracking, a spokesman for State Rep. Charlie Dean’s office said that there would be no group of persons “sitting in front of a computer screen” monitoring this tracking system. “If you think about it, it’s not feasible,” he said. Of course it’s not. Where are all the employees going to come from who will just sit there and watch the thousands of sex offender “trails” all day long? And how well-trained will they be? The spokesman indicated it was probable that “exclusion zones” would be set up for the tracking systems so an individual might not be allowed near schools, for example. If the tracked person were to breach an exclusion zone, an “alarm” would be sent to law enforcement authorities. Authorities then would be responding after the fact, and it only takes minutes to perpetrate a violent crime.

Probation officers would be able to access the GPS tracking of their charges when and if they liked. “You’ll be able to know where a person is when you want to know it,” the spokesman offered.

The inherent weaknesses in such a system are obvious. While GPS can relay a person’s location theoretically “24/7,” not only will there not be a human eye keeping a constant eye on this technology, GPS doesn’t function well or at all, in certain conditions, such as in a basement, tunnel, subway, or building. In addition, such technology can tell where a subject is and whether or not they have breached an “exclusion zone,” but it cannot tell whether the subject is carrying out a crime. A probationer could carry out a crime outside of an exclusion zone, while the electronic monitoring indicates nothing is amiss.

The Miami Herald praised the Lunsford Act, saying in part, that electronic monitoring would make it more difficult for ex-convicts to repeat their offenses after they’ve served their tie and been released from jail. Many of these types of offenders are hardened and not deterred by normal means however. The first week of May saw a story break that illustrates this. A convicted sex offender under supervised release, Patrick Wayne Bell, went missing after cutting off his electronic anklet at his mother’s house-which is near a school. Bell had previously molested two children, and as of the time of this writing he is still missing. Another sex offender who cut his anklet off, Jimmy James Felder, was located only when he turned himself in to authorities. These two cases underscore the great folly of putting any significant trust for community safety in electronic monitoring.

Complicating the situation is an April 25 story broken by the New York Daily News’ Joe Mahoney, who reported that thousands of convicted “sex fiends” will vanish from the Megan’s Law-mandated registry beginning next January: “That’s because the law, which went into effect in January 1996, requires only the most dangerous offenders to sign on for life. All other predators have to stay registered for just 10 years.” Mahoney says that of the statewide total, only 5,551 have been branded “lifetime registrants,” meaning the other 15,418 offenders will eventually be free of the registration requirement because court evaluators have deemed them low- or moderate-risk offenders. Assemblyman Felix Ortiz (D-Brooklyn) thinks he’s got the answer. Mahoney reported Ortiz has drafted a bill that would-you guessed it-require all sex offenders to wear ankle bracelets equipped with global positioning technology that would allow authorities to track their movements. “This technology will work, so let’s use it instead of playing Russian roulette with our families,” added Ortiz. Actually, relying on tracking technology is a form of playing Russian roulette with families, and it’s about time media raised a public discussion and debate over this issue. Otherwise, politicians who lack technological savvy will easily lead ignorant communities into a false sense of security.

While media have covered the recent Florida tragedies extensively, there has yet to be a newspaper or TV news account explaining the limitations and details of the technologies that will be used for monitoring. This is a serious matter. The safety of the communities across the country is at stake.

The signing of the law into act was reported in news media across the country, including CNN, the Washington Post, San Jose Mercury News, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, New York Times, Palm Beach Post, USA Today and ABC News among many others. None discussed the details of tracking technologies or the inherent limitations.

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