Study says GPS has a 70% rate of false alarms!

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In 2011, Dr. Gaylene Armstrong and Beth Freeman published a study in the Journal of Criminal Justice examining the effects of a state law in Arizona that required the GPS monitoring of adult sex offenders placed on community supervision. The study, entitled “Examining GPS Monitoring Alerts Triggered by Sex Offenders: The Divergence of Legislative Goals and Practical Applications in Community Corrections,” monitored sex offenders in Maricopa County, AZ over a two-year period.

The study attempts to provide empirical data to measure legislative intent versus effectiveness of community supervision with GPS. The effectiveness of such programs is often an area filled with conjecture and opinions rather than data. Armstong and Freeman ultimately note that: “GPS technology is far more limited than anticipated and should be viewed as a tool rather than depended upon as a control mechanism.”

While this study focused on post-trial monitoring, the issues it raises are and should be concerns of pre-trial programs. These issues include technical issues, case management issues, and cost effectiveness.

The technology is limited. Simply, GPS tracking is underdeveloped. A significant number of equipment-related alerts were triggered by a loss of a satellite signal, rather than violations in the Arizona study. Community corrections supervisors estimated that up to 70 percent of alerts were false alarms. In turn, those false alerts increased in the workload of probation officers, devouring more resources and hours, thus calling into question the cost effectiveness of GPS monitoring when considering the workload required to implement and maintain the system. Further, the study questioned if technology provided a false sense of security and helped to create complacency by probation officers.

If these are issues for post-trial monitoring, it would likely be the same issues for pre-trial monitoring for released suspects. These are additional, created issues that do not currently exist with the bail bonds industry. Bail bonds also do not incur the additional costs on the public like GPS monitoring will most likely incur.

As the study concluded:

“Results demonstrated a clear difference between legislative perceptions of the level of technological advancement of GPS equipment and its actual readiness for broad based roll out in community corrections settings at this time,” said the study. “Moreover, it appears from these results that GPS technology is currently too underdeveloped to recommend continued swift enactment of legislation mandating implementation and utilization of GPS in a cost-effective manner.”

While legislators attempt to find the right balance between release and flight risk, they must keep in mind that some technological solutions are better in theory than practical application.