Lois Henry

Saturday, Jul 17 2010 09:20 PM

Lois Henry: Sex offenders unwatched as parole struggles with GPS system

By Lois Henry

For the last three weeks of April, more than 20 local sex offenders strapped with GPS monitoring units went unsupervised by state parole agents.

The good news -- so far as we know -- is that nothing happened. None of the offenders killed, robbed, raped, kidnapped or otherwise abused any unsuspecting citizens, again, that we know of.

Even so, it's not all's well that ends well. Far from it.

The Bakersfield situation is just the latest example of what appears to be a systemic problem with the statewide GPS sex offender program and comes on the heels of scathing criticism of how the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has managed that program.

Two special reports by the state Office of the Inspector General found Corrections' GPS policies were confused at best and non-existent at worst.

The full technological abilities of the system aren't being used, agents and supervisors aren't properly trained and agents are so overloaded with GPS busy work they aren't able to do other vitally important checks in the field, according to the reports.

Overall, the reports concluded, Corrections is not aggressively monitoring sex offenders and the public is being given a "false sense of security."

Field work suffering

The reports were done in response to two high-profile and tragic cases.

One delved into how Phillip Garrido was able to allegedly kidnap and hide Jaycee Dugard for nearly two decades in his backyard, fathering two children by her, while on parole during all those years and on GPS monitoring at least part of the time.

The second report looked at John Gardner, who raped and murdered two teen girls in San Diego after having violated parole numerous times while on GPS for a previous sex offense.

Both men were on "passive" GPS monitoring, as they were deemed lower-risk offenders. High-risk offenders are known as "active" GPS parolees.

The practical difference is that agents must monitor active parolees' GPS "tracks" daily. Tracks are dots showing exactly where the parolee is at any given time. Passive parolee tracks are checked over two 48-hour periods per month, essentially four out of 30 days.

Luckily, a Garrido or Gardner nightmare didn't come true in Bakersfield while GPS parolees went unwatched for several weeks.

And while it was an extreme aberration for three weeks to pass without supervision, at least one Bakersfield caseload roster from earlier in April shows a variety of non-GPS required checks were routinely missed -- even on parolees deemed "high risk sex offenders."

Those checks range from all-important home visits to drug testing and visits to family and friends.

It could be the agent simply didn't mark down that he'd done those checks, which a supervisor should have caught.

Or, it could be, as the Gardner report states, GPS busy work is shunting aside necessary field work.

Part of that so-called busy work involves alerts sent by GPS units for a multitude of reasons, low batteries, lost signal for an unknown reason, entering a prohibited zone such as near a school, etc.

In response to the Gardner report, Corrections implemented a policy in March requiring that all alerts had to be "cleared" by agents.

But records obtained by the San Diego Union-Tribune showed 31,000 unresolved alerts between March and June.

Most alerts were minor, some were not. And some stem from Corrections policies that require agents to create GPS restriction zones on parolees that don't constitute crimes.

Nighttime curfews, for instance, can't be mandated on offenders unless they regularly committed their crimes at night. But curfew zones are routine, causing more alerts.

In Region 1, mostly Kern County, there were 49 unresolved alerts between March and the end of June, according to Corrections spokeswoman Jessica Mazlum.

"This does not mean that the agent has not investigated or addressed these GPS alerts. It only means that, for these parolees, the agent has not checked the box," showing the alert was cleared.

OK, but it also doesn't mean the alert was cleared. The box wasn't checked so there's no way to know what happened with the alert or even whether it was of a serious nature.

It seems to me that what the policy really means is one more headache for agents.

All of which begs the question: Is the GPS program so flawed or mismanaged that it's actually jeopardizing public safety?

Adding more straws

"Parole agents are so busy tracking dots on a computer screen, they're not out making home visits, checking the guy's workplace, talking to family members," said Melinda Silva, president of the Parole Agents Association of California.

"Agents are spending the bulk of their time running tracks including at home and on the weekends."

Jessica's Law, passed in 2006, started the ball rolling on lifetime GPS monitoring of sex offenders. Then the Garrido report added more responsibilities and the Gardner report still more.

California leads the nation in GPS monitored parolees -- 6,500 -- at a cost of $60 million a year. Depending on arrests, there are typically about 250 sex offender parolees on GPS in Kern County.

Silva said the state isn't taking into account how the program has increased agents' workload and whether the work is actually accomplishing what the public expects.

"People believe the GPS means we know where they are 24/7 and we don't," Silva said. "We're paying millions for GPS and we're not getting much out of it because agents don't have time to do the work."

Now, she said, State Sen. George Runner, who authored Proposition 83 establishing Jessica's Law, has a bill involving Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites that she feared would add even more to agents' plates.

Not so, Runner said.

His bill, SB 1204 which has passed the Senate and the Public Safety committee in the Assembly, would simply require that sex offenders register their online and e-mail addresses as well as their instant messaging user names just like they do their physical addresses.

Silva argued that if it becomes a crime for a sex offender not to register their electronic info, that makes it absolutely incumbent on the agent to check the sites.

"Who enforces that if not us?" she asked. "It's ludicrous to say there's no extra work."

As for whether the GPS program has been a success, Runner said it's an evolving technology that should not be thought of as a cure-all.

"It's just one tool," he said.

There have been successes and failures with GPS, he acknowledged. But he firmly believes the technology and its use will continue to improve.

"That said, there have been problems with implementation." And he said he was "frustrated" with some of Corrections' responses to recommendations about how to do better.

"Whether that's a resource problem or a personnel problem I can't say," Runner added. "A person still has to decide to follow up on issues and Gardner is a perfect example. While he was on GPS he violated parole and someone could have put him back in prison but didn't."

The tip of the iceberg

Silva agreed GPS can be a good tool. But the program now isn't working as it should, she said.

"The Bakersfield situation is just the tip of the iceberg," she said.

I tried to speak with Rod Armstrong, the agent in charge of the Bakersfield office, about the supervision lapse here but he referred me to Corrections brass in Sacramento, saying he'd been told not to discuss the matter.

A range of Corrections press people told me that, yes, there had been "allegations" and "concerns" and a review had been completed.

They refused, however, to reveal the findings other than to say the lack of supervision wasn't because Armstrong had declined to authorize overtime to backfill for a vacationing agent, as had been alleged.

I wanted to know how Corrections planned to make sure such a gap in supervision didn't re-occur based on the findings of their review but was then told officials were "still looking into the matter," according to Terry Thornton, one of three Corrections spokespeople I talked with.

Moving forward

Corrections is responding to the Garrido/Gardner reports, said yet another spokesperson, Gordon Hinkle.

There's an internal audit to prioritize alerts and make sure they're being responded to and cleared.

And they've assembled a task force of law enforcement officials, victims rights groups, GPS experts and others to look over the recommendations from the Garrido/Gardner reports. How those recommendations may affect agent's workload will be a part of the review, Hinkle said.

"This isn't a home detention device," Hinkle reminded. "We're getting better with it all the time, but that doesn't mean GPS can prevent crimes from happening.

"The only way to keep monsters like Gardner and Garrido at bay is to keep them in prison."

Maybe, but we're not there yet.

Where we are is spending $60 million a year on a tool that it seems we're not using very well.

Trying to hide that fact won't fix the problem.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at people.bakersfield.com/ home/Blog/noholdsbarred, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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