Crime

Stanislaus soon will use tracking system for gang members, auto thieves

Stanislaus County's highest-risk probationers soon will be slapped with 24-hour scrutiny, as the Probation Department adopts a surveillance system other counties have called cutting edge and reliable for tracking offenders.

A GPS tracking program will keep tabs on the most notorious gang members, auto thieves, sexual predators or probationers with domestic violence convictions, said Jerry Powers, the county's chief probation officer.

About 7,500 adults and 750 juveniles are on probation in Stanislaus County, Powers said. For adults, a combination of probation and county jail tends to be a substitute for a state prison sentence; it's a lesser sentence that gives probationers a chance to continue working or stay in school and avoid the harsher conditions of state confinement.

Ninety percent of court cases result in probation and county jail, rather than state prison, Powers said. Probation usually lasts three to five years.

Powers' department rented global positioning system equipment earlier this month. By October, probationers will be hooked into the equipment, wearing an electronic monitoring device on an ankle and carrying a cell phone that electronically tethers them to their probation officers.

Though the Probation Department has used electronic bracelets in house arrests, this is the first time the county will be using GPS units. Electronic bracelets only indicate whether an offender is at home or out; GPS units show where he or she is at all times.

"We have a huge problem in the county with gangs and vehicle theft," Powers said. "This will allow us to do some precision strikes into our communities to get a handle on this stuff. It's just one more arrow in our quiver. Every police chief I've spoken to is champing at the bit."

How it works

The Board of Supervisors in June approved about $120,000 for the tracking program during the 2007-08 fiscal year, Powers said. About $20,000 will pay for the rental of as many as 20 GPS tracking units, electronic monitoring anklets and a charging base for the trackers. The remaining $100,000 will cover probation staff positions to monitor tracking data.

Powers, who says use of the system will become state law for sex offenders by 2009, admits it's a big expense, but well worth it.

"From the potential victim's point of view, it's money well spent if it prevents the assault," he said. "From the taxpayer's perspective, if you're the tax- payer that has the restraining order against the stalker, and GPS prevents them from harming you, or if you have a sex offender who lives down the street and they have GPS on, you'll probably think this is a great use of taxpayer funds.

"We're putting it on the highest-risk people out there, people who have the greatest propensity for reoffending. That's where the taxpayer gets the most bang for their buck."

The Probation Department just received 10 devices and plans to rent another 10 within three months, Powers said, from Boulder, Colo.-based BI Inc.

The trackers are essentially cell phones that communicate with 12 GPS satellites, broadcasting each user's position every minute. Probationers using the equipment must wear an anklet and carry the phone at all times; the anklet and phone must stay within 35 feet of each other, or probation officers receive an alert.

The phones must be charged each night. They do not allow outgoing calls, but can receive text messages from probation officers.

The system will be monitored frequently by the department, but not 24-7. Probationers won't know when they're being watched.

The equipment will allow officers, for example, to remind probationers about upcoming court dates, said Victor Curtis, the deputy probation officer in charge of monitoring the GPS program. If Curtis receives an alert that a probationer's anklet and phone have gone out of range of each other, he can send a text message to the phone such as, "Report immediately to officer."

The phone beeps more and more quickly until the proba- tioner responds.

Curtis can set individual profiles using special tracking software for each probationer he monitors. If he's watching a sex offender, he can set zones such as schools as off-limits. If the probationer gets close to a school, Curtis would receive an immediate alert; the sex offender's location in prohibited areas is transmitted every 15 seconds, instead of every minute.

For a gang member, Curtis could use the software to set other known gang members' homes or known gang gathering spots as forbidden. Not only could this potentially lead law enforcement agents to gang events more quickly, it also could act as a deterrent. Gang members might not want someone with a tracking device around to tip off law enforcement about their whereabouts.

"If we put this on a high-level gang member, he then becomes radioactive," Powers said. "Nobody's going to want to be around him."

Court-ordered GPS tracking has been used in other places as a type of alternate sentence to free space in overcrowded jails. In Stanislaus County, the program will focus on high-risk probationers who need close monitoring, Powers said. Decisions about who will be tracked will be made by the Probation Department in cooperation with other local law enforcement agencies.

State law gives county probation departments the authority to use electronic monitoring devices and GPS units on probationers, Powers said.

Authority questioned

This authority has been questioned in other counties with longer-running tracking programs, said Rick Arden, deputy chief probation officer in San Bernardino County. Public defenders there have said certain GPS tracking must be court- ordered as a part of sentencing; probation officers have argued that the penal code grants them the authority to use the devices.

But even as San Bernardino's legal battle works its way through the courts, Arden said, GPS tracking has led to many successes since the county started tagging sex offenders two years ago. It monitors 13 sex offenders and, since early summer, 52 gang members.

The tracking system helped his officers discover that some sex offenders were reporting false home addresses. Using GPS showed where the offenders were living. And it led to the arrest of a gang member at a murder scene. He wasn't responsible, but officers got information from him about the incident because GPS tracking showed he was there.

Sure, it's possible for people to cut off the anklets or leave their tracking devices at home, Arden said, but probation officers know immediately when this happens and can send probationers to jail for such violations. Most people in his program comply, he said.

Arden compared GPS monitoring to drug testing: Drug testing likely won't stop drug use, but it makes it possible for officers to know when probationers don't comply with the terms of their release.

"It's not a cure-all. It doesn't stop everything," Arden said. "It's a tool that we can use for tracking purposes, not crime prevention."

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.

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