A High-Tech Parable: California Uses GPS to Track Parolees, Then Ignores the Data

Last Updated Jun 16, 2010 3:29 PM EDT

Several years ago, California decided to require high-risk parolees, such as gang members and sex offenders, to wear GPS monitoring devices. The idea was to relay location information to law enforcement to ensure that the convicts stay where they're supposed to. Unfortunately, the state often misses those alerts, making the devices both a lesson in the pitfalls of technology management and a massive exercise in largely useless spending.

In 2004, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger first supported a pilot program to track 500 sex offenders and alert authorities if one of them wandered too far from home. California voters passed a ballot initiative, nicknamed Jessica's Law, in 2006 that prohibited sex offenders from being within 2,000 feet of a school or park and required all offenders to wear monitoring devices for the rest of their lives. By this year, the state wanted to expand monitoring to a thousand paroled gang members at a cost of $9,500 a year for each one.

The move expands what is already the nation's biggest Global Positioning System monitoring program of convicts, coming three years after voters required satellite tracking of more than 7,000 paroled sex offenders.
Unfortunately, the technology, as California implemented it, didn't work. The case of convicted sex offender Leonard Scroggins shows the system's problem. Scroggins cut the tracking device off his ankle and allegedly tried to rob or kidnap several women and girls over a two-day period. The device sounded an alarm and parole officers pushed through the paperwork for an arrest warrant, but the process took nearly 24 hours. Even then, police would only learn of the warrant if they picked up Scroggins for some other reason and then checked the appropriate database.

Computers can automatically route signals to the proper people in law enforcement. Nevertheless, parole officials have left tens of thousands of electronic alerts unresolved:

Officials say the backlog grew because they lacked software to run an ongoing report of all unresolved cases. That is, supervisors in Southern California were working only with reports of new alarms, rather than a report showing previous alarms that had not been cleared.
Officials clearly didn't have a desktop database or spreadsheet to filter and analyze the alerts, and so they were buried in unexamined data.

According to Petra Fuhriman, owner of GPS Monitoring Solutions, a monitoring consulting and services company never involved in the state's system, California chose a passive alert system. Notifications from the monitoring devices automatically go to parole officers. However, there is no differentiation among different types of alerts. A device could as easily signal that it had been removed or that the battery was running down. Someone might be on a highway, technically in a restricted area but actually passing by at high speed -- or stuck in traffic, where it might look like they were loitering.

Fuhriman says that that parole officers' phones and email in-boxes "are flooded with these messages, so they become desensitized and stop paying attention." The state could write software to prioritize the messages, based on the type of alert and the frequency of notification to help the officers choose the most important alerts, but it apparently hasn't.

Alerts also do little good when parole personnel are off-duty on a weekend and no one receives a message until the following Monday. Some companies provide real-time monitoring, with outsourced first level screening of alerts and officer notification for serious issues, but that is more expensive.

And so California, like so many institutions and organizations, looked to technology as a silver bullet siren, but failed to undertake the operational changes necessary to make it work. Officials cost-cut the original good idea to the point where it was all but useless.

Image: Erik Sherman

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.