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GPS and Social Media Surveillance - Best Hope for Corrections?
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 11/06/2017


It’s 1:00 a.m. and an offender recently released from prison violates curfew and leaves his house. He is wearing a GPS or satellite tracking device.

A family member was recently shot and the fear is that he is seeking revenge. The bar serving members of a rival gang suspected in the shooting will close at 2:00 and participants will take to the streets, intoxicated and possibly unaware of the danger that awaits.

A computer-driven algorithm matches the offender’s name with victims of violent crime or known suspects.

In the vast majority of cities, the GPS violation would have to wait till Monday morning when his parole and probation officer gets alerts on him and others on GPS.

But in this hypothetical case, a parole and probation agent is sitting in a control center doing real-time surveillance with law enforcement. They immediately look at the offender’s social media sites and discover an ominous warning that he intends to seek retribution for the shooting of his cousin.

Police are dispatched. They know exactly where the offender is. The offender doesn’t care. Like many young men caught up in a criminal lifestyle, his emotions demand action. He doesn’t care that he’s wearing a GPS device.

Police find him within minutes. He’s carrying a gun, which he discards before running. He’s caught minutes later. Lives are saved and the city avoids a headline about another homicide.

The Corrections Dilemma - Nothing Works

The dilemma for corrections is that nothing seems to work as to programs for offenders, see Crime in America-Rehabilitation.

The vast majority of the evidence as to programs indicates that reductions in technical violations or new crimes are negligible (if they work at all), or harmful. This applies to specialty courts (forthcoming article), Project Hope, Crime in America-Project Hope, and additional efforts.

We are at the point where it seems that nothing works, or nothing works well. GPS and social media surveillance may be our last best hope (data below).

The Technology is Here

What I describe in the opening paragraph is doable now and interestingly; it’s what citizens think we are doing after watching television dramas showing officers using the most advanced technology available.

The equipment to track offenders in real time exists. The algorithms to review social media are in place. The ability to overlay Google Earth images and maps to provide clarity is here (i.e., a sex offender hanging out at a playground).

But the reality is that we don’t have the people or money to staff GPS and social media command centers on a 24-365 basis. Without this capacity, parole and probation agents with GPS caseloads will be overwhelmed by the data; the vast majority of inputs are innocuous (i.e., people testing the limits of the system or failing to recharge batteries).

We don’t employ the technology to sift through all the electronic signals with precision. It’s a matter of too much information, and little in the way to filter it into an accurate warning that an offender has a high likelihood of committing another violent crime.

Offenders provide warning signals all the time, but predicting acts, times and locations remain a stretch without better technology and experienced human intervention.

Newer GPS technology will be able to talk to the offender via cell phone built into the device, and record drug and alcohol use. Battery life will improve. It’s possible that smartphones (or smartwatches) will become the new tracking devices. GPS is constantly evolving.

But real-time tracking of offenders is doable today. It would take considerable person power by a combined parole and probation and police team. It would also require violent and multi-repeat offenders released from prison to be hooked up to GPS before leaving the facility.

Before Leaving Prison

Under this proposal, offenders would have to be enrolled in GPS before leaving prison. They would receive personalized instruction as to what this means and the impact on their lives.

They would have to watch films on GPS use and what they can and cannot do.

They would be told that they will be tracked in real time by an array of professionals, and rule breaking would have immediate consequences up to and including a return to incarceration.

Considering that an offender on “normal” parole and probation is seen for a couple of minutes a month, the change would be profound.

The concept could also be used to expedite the release of lower-risk offenders.

Not Forever

Offenders leaving prison would be told that GPS is not forever, and they will be provided with quick incentives for good behavior.

They will be on curfew in their homes for the first two weeks but with good behavior, they will be provided with greater flexibility and freedom. Verified employment or treatment programs would be encouraged.

The goal is to take them off of GPS within three months or less. Data on recidivism indicates that bulk of reoffending takes place within the first six months, or the first year.

If there is a reason to keep them on GPS (i.e., intelligence from police or the community, drug use, rumors of violence, social media posts indicating criminal activity) they stay monitored.

Social Media

Every day brings crimes committed by people under correctional supervision and it’s not unusual for offenders to broadcast criminal intentions beforehand. Offenders post social media messages showing them with guns, knives, drugs or being in the company of minors (example below).

With caseloads averaging 150 offenders to every parole and probation agent (ratios can be much higher) it’s literally impossible for agents to monitor social media accounts, thus few are shocked when so many illegal or questionable activities go unnoticed.

There are endless questions regarding the ethics of social media monitoring, but when an offender commits a crime, media will review social media posts and offer photos of the individual with firearms and drugs. “We found this,” they will say. “Why didn’t you know about it?”

How NYC Fights Gang Violence Via Social Media

From The Crime Report: As a “violence interrupter” for Bronx Connect’s Release the Grip office, a Bronx site for the global nonprofit Cure Violence, Samuel Jackson, a 39-year-old former gang member used his personal experience to persuade young gang members to walk away from violent showdowns.

Now, he spends 14 hours a day on a new turf: Facebook and Instagram, the Wall Street Journal reports.

As heated social media exchanges fuel gang violence, Release the Grip has gone digital, aiming to prevent the next fatal shooting by defusing charged online confrontations.

“I didn’t have [social media] growing up,” said Jackson, who was convicted of assault at 16 and spent six years in prison. “Now the young individuals coming up behind my generation, they have that outlet.”

Social media rapidly escalates tension between gangs and many of the gang shootings last year were rooted in an exchange on social media. Gangs promote themselves online, said Robert Boyce, New York City chief of detectives. “The gang members who had spent the past screaming at each other and threatening each other in the streets were now doing it in social media,” said Richard Aborn of the Citizens Crime Commission in New York, a nonprofit focusing on crime and public safety policies.

When people scream at each other in the streets, when it’s over, it’s over. When people scream at each other on Facebook, it stays there. New York University and the crime commission launched an “E-Responder” pilot last year to train interrupters to identify risky posts and communicate to young people the repercussions of aggressive online behavior, Wall Street Journal.

Most Return to Prison

The first thing to understand is that most prisoners return to the criminal justice system, see Crime in America-Recidivism. Seventy-five percent are rearrested. More than half (55 percent) return to prison.

We simply can’t return everyone to prison. Governors are insisting that correctional administrators reduce their budgets, thus the days of returning most or all violators to prison are over. We have no choice but to implement intermediate sanctions to try to stabilize offenders while in the community (something that GPS is uniquely suited for).

The cost to taxpayers and effectiveness are driving principals. If we cannot program our way out of recidivism, and if the mast majority return to the criminal justice system, then we have no choice to look elsewhere for solutions. Could the extensive use of GPS and social media surveillance be the solution?

The research on GPS is promising as to technical violations and returns to prison so it could be a win-win situation for everyone.

GPS Evaluations

One of the few evaluations that include both GPS and radio frequency monitoring was completed in 2006 by Florida State University’s College of Criminology and Criminal Justice. The study (“Under Surveillance: An Empirical Test of the Effectiveness and Consequences of Electronic Monitoring”) concludes that electronic monitoring has produced promising results:

Overall, Florida’s program is found to provide an effective public safety alternative to prison for serious offenders, including those convicted of murder/manslaughter, sex offenses, robbery, and other violent offenses…Our findings indicate that electronic monitoring actually reduces the likelihood of revocation for a technical violation for offenders on home confinement. More importantly, electronic monitoring also reduces the likelihood of revocation for a new offense and the likelihood of absconding which demonstrates a positive effect on public safety.

The authors conclude:…it appears likely that the use of electronic monitoring devices will increase dramatically in the very near future.

Newer Research

A newer study (“A Quantitative and Qualitative Assessment of Electronic Monitoring”) was offered by the Florida State University in January of 2010. It provides the latest update of previous studies using GPS and other forms of electronic monitoring (EM).

The report indicates, The balance of evidence from these studies shows that EM is effective in reducing supervision failure rates, as measured in a variety of ways.

Researchers examined 5,034 medium- and high-risk offenders on EM and 266,991 offenders not placed on EM over a six-year period plus interviews with staff and offenders. Selected findings include:

EM reduces the likelihood of failure under community supervision. The reduction in the risk of failure is about 31%, relative to offenders placed on other forms of community supervision.

EM allows offenders to remain in the community thereby promoting family ties.

EM supervision has less of an impact on violent offenders than on sex, drug, property, and other types of offenders, although there are significant reductions in the hazard rate for all of these offense types.

There are no major differences in the effects of EM supervision across different age groups.

There were no major differences in the effects of EM for different types of supervision.

Approximately 1 in 3 EM offenders would have served time in prison if not for the electronic surveillance option available to the courts, https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/230530df.

Cost Effectiveness

Washington State Institute for Public Policy, “Electronic Monitoring (Probation),” June 2016, indicates cost-effectiveness of GPS over time, http://www.wsipp.wa.gov/BenefitCost/ProgramPdf/437/Electronic-monitoring-probation.

The Best Hope for Corrections?

GPS is a useful tool in community supervision, but it’s not foolproof. Nothing’s foolproof.

But the data on reductions for technical violations and returns to prison indicate the possibility of a more effective and humane way to supervise offenders. It’s also helpful as to documenting attendance at treatment or employment centers or doing court-ordered community service.

If people want ironclad guarantees that the offender will not commit additional crimes in the community, their only alternative is incarceration.

Despite its many limitations, GPS helps parole and probation agencies achieve goals of protecting the public through effective community supervision.

But the only method for that to happen is to staff a real-time, 24-365 operation where there are experts to evaluate the data points and to come to reasonable conclusions. It needs a law enforcement component to respond and the ability to review social media sites.

Some parole and probation agencies are currently using private vendors to take some of the data point burdens (i.e., offenders not charging their units or testing the limits) off the shoulders of agents, but they are not in the position to make real-time qualitative assessments. They can’t dispatch law enforcement.

To achieve a reasonable amount of predictability, you need experts with the time and technology to make accurate judgment calls. Those assessments could save lives and reduce the burden on taxpayers by keeping people out of prison. We can also do a better job making sure that offenders attend treatment programs.

Reprinted with permission from http://www.crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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