Some victims of domestic violence have been feeling safer recently, thanks to expanded use of GPS monitoring as a tool for supervising defendants. Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Connecticut already have successful GPS programs in place, and the Pennsylvania legislature is considering instituting a program.
A Department of Justice study released in June 2012 shows that GPS monitoring is an effective way to protect victims of domestic abuse. No victims in the study group suffered abuse during the study period, and a year later defendants from the GPS study had fewer program violations than defendants not using the devices. The study included extensive interviews with victims, defendants, and criminal justice professionals that offer provocative insights into what works and what doesn’t in the ongoing battle against domestic violence.
GPS monitoring has been a feature of some pretrial release programs for domestic violence defendants since 1996. While awaiting trial, selected defendants are allowed to avoid jail and return to their communities if they agree to undergo continuous GPS monitoring. Those who enter the program are issued a GPS device that sends a warning signal to the supervising agency if they enter a “safe zone”—the area around a victim’s home, workplace, or other designated area that a victim visits frequently. For example, a defendant might be forbidden to enter a neighborhood where his alleged victim is serving as a caregiver for an elderly family member. Defendants pay a fee to cover agency supervision and use of the technology, and they must keep the device charged and stay within range of the electronic signal.
The GPS program offers defendants much more freedom than they would experience in jail or under traditional house arrest. Defendants can continue to work and meet financial obligations to their victims and children. Defendants are free to visit friends and relatives, attend church, pursue sports and hobbies, and enroll in school as long as they respect the safe zones programmed into their devices.
The DOJ study testifies to the effectiveness of GPS monitoring: Victims, defendants, and supervising officers listed numerous benefits, and statistics bear out their positive impressions. But the study also uncovered areas of misunderstanding—and, in some cases, dangers—that courts and agencies need to recognize.
Victims report many benefits: They feel safe and experience freedom they may not have enjoyed in a long time. Victims can shop, work, see friends, and move within their safe zones with more confidence. Before GPS monitoring, their attackers were able to harass, intimidate, and abuse them almost at will. “He got away with everything,” one victim complained—until he enrolled in the monitoring program.
But GPS monitoring doesn’t work for everyone. The device won’t stop an offender who’s determined to harm an ex-lover, especially if he (or she) is willing to risk a return to jail. The safe zones (which, paradoxically, are not always shared with the defendant) sometimes decrease victims’ security, since a defendant can work the GPS system to discover where a victim is living or a child has been hidden. And, in an ironic twist, the technology can increase a victim’s anxiety. When a defendant cooperates fully with the program, the warning system may be silent for weeks at a time. That silence can be unnerving, victims say. How can they be sure the technology is still functioning?
Most seriously, some GPS programs are run by officials who have a dismissive attitude towards domestic violence and view GPS monitoring primarily as a substitute for jail. The DOJ study included interviews with officials who cynically believe most victims will eventually recant—and that many of them are secretly meeting their alleged attackers outside the safe zones. Those officials say that there’s no reason to set up notification systems to warn victims that a safe zone has been violated.
Those officials sometimes employ a kind of tunnel vision when a defendant violates a safe-zone boundary. Officials may accept a defendant’s excuse without checking his or her story—and without notifying the victim about the violation and subsequent danger. In one case, a defendant claimed that his job delivering mail required him to enter a safe zone repeatedly. No one checked to see if he was really working for the post office. And in several jurisdictions, no one notified victims that the defendants they feared had been released from the GPS program. The victims continued to believe they were protected by a warning system that had been terminated without their knowledge.
Clearly GPS monitoring isn’t the perfect solution to domestic violence. Still, the DOJ study (and subsequent data) show that victims are much safer when their alleged attackers enter a GPS program. And—surprisingly—many defendants were grateful for the program because it provided the incentive and accountability they needed to restructure their lives. Because they could no longer fill their empty hours with harassment and abuse, they had to find new ways to use their time. Forbidden to enter safe zones to return to old hangouts, and aware that their whereabouts were constantly monitored, some defendants enrolled in school or entered treatment programs.
Many defendants mentioned a program supervisor who provided valuable counseling and encouragement. Some also said that GPS monitoring provided objective, unarguable proof that they were indeed honoring their pretrial agreement. Victims could not lie about unauthorized visits or harassing behavior.
But a number of defendants also complained that GPS monitoring violated the “innocent until proven guilty” principle that is supposed to be the cornerstone of American justice. Program participation is usually limited to defendants awaiting trial, and the DOJ study showed that almost half of all GPS clients’ cases were dismissed, suggesting that enrollment guidelines may need to be revisited and revised.
Some problems center on the technology. Devices can lose contact with the signal in some locations, such as rural areas and workspaces deep inside large buildings. Batteries need frequent recharging, and electronic noises from devices can create awkward moments and raise uncomfortable questions at school, work, and social situations. Clearly the devices and monitoring technology need improvements.
Despite the negative factors, the evidence in favor of GPS monitoring is impressive. Perhaps the most valuable input was provided by criminal justice professionals who work with defendants and victims. When used properly, GPS monitoring can have an unexpected benefit: Victims protected by the program are more likely to appear in court and testify, according to the DOJ study. The accountability built into a GPS program reassures victims that the criminal justice system is committed to helping them. As a result, they’re more likely to cooperate with prosecutors.
Still, officials warn, GPS devices are not a one-size-fits-all solution to domestic violence. “Mismatching”—hooking up defendants who don’t belong in a GPS program—sets up defendants for failure and strains caseloads. For example, a first-time offender might need an anger-management class rather than a GPS program. And officials must be careful not to be lulled into overconfidence. All victims should be taught how to make and carry out a safety plan, and they may also need to learn how to keep children and pets safe.
GPS monitoring has proven its effectiveness, and its usefulness can be expected to grow as the technology improves. We can expect to see more jurisdictions adopting GPS technology soon.
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Jean Reynolds, Ph. D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of nine books, including Police Talk (Pearson), and she publishes a Police Writer Newsletter. Visit her website at www. YourPoliceWrite. com for free report writing resources. Go to www. Amazon. com for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.