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California to change sex-offender tracking

/ Source: The Associated Press

Buried under a tidal wave of electronic data, California parole agents next week will significantly change how they monitor and respond to alarms from tracking devices that are affixed to released sex offenders, The Associated Press has learned.

An internal California Department of Corrections report obtained by The AP found that a typical parole agent spent 44 percent of her workweek reviewing the computer-tracked movements of parolees, and just 12 percent in the field.

They'll get some relief Wednesday, when the companies that provide the satellite-linked ankle bracelets will begin screening the tens of thousands of electronic alarms that flood in each month. The companies will forward the most serious alerts to parole agents while weeding out those that signal more mundane problems such a low battery or lost cell phone signal.

Corrections officials fear parole agents' lack of personal contact can embolden released sex offenders to harass their previous victims or commit new crimes. They are seeking to minimize the sort of information fatigue that inadvertently helped paroled rapist Phillip Garrido keep a kidnapped woman captive for 18 years.

"The whole purpose of trying this out is to enable the parole agents to focus more on direct supervision," Corrections Department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said.

The companies that provide the GPS equipment also will screen the alerts in selected areas and attempt to contact parolees if, for instance, their bracelets have lost contact or the battery has run low. Parole agents will be contacted if the parolee cannot be reached or if an alert signals a danger, such as a parolee getting too close to a victim's home.

A team of parole officers and other department employees will oversee the program and work with local law enforcement agencies to see if parolees' GPS-tracked movements can help solve crimes.

California tracks more paroled sex offenders with GPS than any other state, at a cost of $60 million a year.

While each offender has been strapped with an ankle bracelet since January 2009, the corrections department began requiring agents to do even more remote supervision of parolees in response to their failure to catch Garrido. The released sex offender kidnapped Jaycee Dugard and fathered two children with her while imprisoning her in a backyard shack of his home in Antioch.

Subsequent reviews detailed how parole agents ignored hundreds of alerts that showed Garrido violated his curfew, tampered with his bracelet, let the battery run low or that the device lost contact for hours each night. He was caught in 2009 after campus police at the University of California, Berkeley, became suspicious of his behavior.

Parole agents were put under more pressure in 2010 when another paroled rapist was arrested for the rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl in San Diego County. John Albert Gardner later pleaded guilty to that crime and to a previous rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in the same area.

Since the more stringent monitoring policy has been in place, the sheer volume of GPS alerts has overwhelmed the department's parole staff. Agents responded to an average of 50 automatically generated alarms in a month, including some on what were supposed to be their days off, according to the internal review obtained by AP.

"These guys are in such information overload, I think they can't see the forest for the trees at some point," said parole officer Melinda Silva, who heads the Parole Agents Association of California.

Paroled sex offenders generated 1.5 million alarms from GPS-linked ankle bracelets during the first two years of the state's electronic-monitoring program, from January 2009 through December 2010, according to data compiled for the AP in response to a state Public Records Act request. Corrections department data said the ankle bracelets generate 63,000 GPS alerts per month, or an average of nearly 10 alerts for each of the 6,600 parolees wearing the devices.

The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it does not keep statistics on how agents respond to the alerts, although supervisors are supposed to make sure alarms are not ignored.

In a report released late last year, the corrections department's Sex Offender Supervision and GPS Monitoring Task Force said the call for more computer monitoring of GPS alerts has left agents spending more time at their computers and less time in the field directly supervising paroled sex offenders

"This new information comes at a price," the report said. It did not examine whether parolees have been committing crimes because agents have less time to directly supervise them.

None of the alerts is an automatic parole violation, and some may be caused by weak signals, interference with buildings or inadvertent damage, the department said in response to the AP's records requests.

Yet any of the alarms can signal potential danger from a parolee or merely that the parolee is careless by, for instance, damaging the ankle bracelet or letting the battery run low. Agents said a pattern of lapses can mean a parolee isn't taking his supervision seriously.

According to the data provided to the AP, 58 percent of the alerts came when parolees left a restricted area, typically a certain radius around the parolee's home.

Tampering with the device or its strap triggered 23 percent of the alerts, while 13 percent signaled that the ankle bracelet's battery ran low. Five percent were because the bracelet could not connect with a cell phone signal to transmit its tracking data.

Entering a restricted area, such as school grounds or a victim's neighborhood, caused 1 percent of the alarms.

The number of alerts peaked at nearly 74,000 in November 2009. The corrections department in part attributes the decrease since then to improvements in the technology and construction of the ankle bracelets.

The task that recommended California's new system of monitoring sex offenders advised the department follow the example of Florida and Michigan by creating a monitoring center to evaluate all the warnings triggered by the GPS ankle bracelets, leaving agents free to respond only to the most serious.

Florida was facing the same problems as California until two years ago, when it began paying the company that provides its GPS system $1 a day per parolee to sort through the alarms.

"From a workload perspective, our officers were getting burned out, there were so many alarms," said Shawn Satterfield, the bureau chief who oversees the program. Today, the monitoring center clears 75 percent of the alerts without bothering parole agents.

Michigan and Orange County, Calif., both created their own monitoring centers, hiring technicians at a much lower cost than sworn parole officers.

"The techs can divert a lot of calls and only put through those emergency calls to parole officers," said Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman John Cordell.

California voters required the state to use electronic monitors to track all paroled sex offenders when they approved Jessica's Law in 2006. The law also increased penalties and set limits on where sex offenders can live.

Former state Sen. George Runner, who co-authored Jessica's Law, criticized the department for not creating a monitoring center from the beginning as a way to increase efficiency and reduce costs.

"One of the things we saw right away is, why not have a clearinghouse?" said Runner, a Republican from Lancaster who now is on the state Board of Equalization. "It could be a clerk, so you don't have a parole agent running around doing those things."