Are GPS devices for sex offenders worth it?
More than 20 of the state's most violent sex offenders are tethered to tracking devices that document their locations within a half-block...
Seattle Times staff reporter
More than 20 of the state's most violent sex offenders are tethered to tracking devices that document their locations within a half-block.
The devices are at the heart of Gov. Christine Gregoire's promise to keep people safe from sex predators. On Wednesday, the governor asked the state Legislature for $8.2 million to better monitor sex offenders.
Nearly $1 million would go toward purchasing the tracking sets for the Department of Corrections (DOC); About $5 million would pay for in-person visits of sex offenders by law enforcement.
But community corrections officers doubt whether the $1,500 devices — ankle bracelets, locator boxes designed to be strapped on people's belts and charging units — would ensure that sex offenders are abiding by the terms of their parole. In the two months that a dozen trackers have been used in Seattle, one offender has thrown the device away and another let the battery die — making the devices useless. Both offenders were arrested and held on suspicion of violations.
Theo Lewis, DOC community-corrections supervisor in King County's special-assault unit, said the agency doesn't have the staffing to constantly monitor offenders' whereabouts. Instead, officers check GPS data about once a day to determine where offenders have been in the past 24 hours.
"We're using it as much as we can," Lewis said. "Those people who want to disappear will take the [locator] box and throw it in the garbage can."
When an offender is assigned a GPS monitoring system, a community-corrections officer locks it into a nonremovable ankle bracelet, Lewis said. Offenders also are given a locator box, which tracks the GPS signal and can receive text messages from DOC staff.
Offenders are told to keep the locator box charged. If the battery runs out or the offender strays more than 150 feet from the locator box, the offender's tracking device beeps; community-corrections staff members also receive an e-mail update each day, Lewis said.
But expecting offenders to maintain the equipment, when many are homeless, is proving to be a challenge.
Convicted sex offender Roger Balluta, 40, walked out of the DOC office in the SoDo neighborhood with his new GPS tracking set Friday night. He headed through downtown and across the Seattle Center campus before visiting a liquor store in lower Queen Anne, according to his GPS tracking history. Balluta, who is not allowed to drink, was drunk when he was arrested Tuesday morning, according to Seattle police.
When Balluta was found, near the last spot the GPS pinpointed him, he had a 24-ounce beer in his pocket and an apology for not charging his GPS unit, Lewis said.
But, Lewis said, the majority of the offenders who have been placed on GPS supervision abide by the rules. He said many offenders see the devices as a way to prove they were abiding by the rules of their prison release.
GPS tracking is most commonly used to track Level 3 offenders, considered to be the state's most dangerous and most likely to reoffend. But Lewis said he also has given officers permission to use the tracking system on Level 2 offenders who have been a problem for corrections staff.
"A home check, an office meeting or a polygraph works the same way," Lewis said. "You're playing a game of mental chess with these people. It keeps offenders mindful of their actions."
The DOC tracking program was limited in use and lacked funding until this summer, when Gregoire pushed for changes after 12-year-old Zina Linnik, of Tacoma, was abducted and killed allegedly at the hands of a convicted sex offender.
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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