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February 25, 2013

California unable to keep up with sex offender who disable GPS tracking devices

The Los Angeles Times has this new article highlighting yet another dysfunction in California's operation of its criminal justice system.  The full headline provides an effective summary of the lengthy piece: "Paroled sex offenders disarming tracking devices: Thousands of high-risk parolees are removing GPS monitors, often with little risk of serving time, because jails are too full to hold them.  Some have been charged with new crimes."  Here is how the article gets started:

Thousands of paroled child molesters, rapists and other high-risk sex offenders in California are removing or disarming their court-ordered GPS tracking devices — and some have been charged with new crimes including sexual battery, kidnapping and attempted manslaughter.

The offenders have discovered that they can disable the monitors, often with little risk of serving time for it, a Times investigation has found.  The jails are too full to hold them. "It's a huge problem," said Fresno parole agent Matt Hill. "If the public knew, they'd be shocked."

More than 3,400 arrest warrants for GPS tamperers have been issued since October 2011, when the state began referring parole violators to county jails instead of returning them to its packed prisons.  Warrants increased 28% in 2012 compared to the 12 months before the change in custody began.  Nearly all of the warrants were for sex offenders, who are the vast majority of convicts with monitors, and many were for repeat violations.

The custody shift is part of Gov. Jerry Brown and the legislature's "realignment" program, to comply with court orders to reduce overcrowding in state prisons.  But many counties have been under their own court orders to ease crowding in their jails.   Some have freed parole violators within days, or even hours, of arrest rather than keep them in custody. Some have refused to accept them at all.

Before prison realignment took effect, sex offenders who breached parole remained behind bars, awaiting hearings that could send them back to prison for up to a year.  Now, the maximum penalty is 180 days in jail, but many never serve that time.  With so little deterrent, parolees "certainly are feeling more bold," said Jack Wallace, an executive at the California Sex Offender Management Board.

Rithy Mam, a convicted child stalker, was arrested three times in two months after skipping parole and was freed almost immediately each time.  After his third release, his GPS alarm went off and he vanished, law enforcement records show.  The next day, he turned up in a Stockton living room where a 15-year-old girl was asleep on the couch, police said.  The girl told police she awoke to find the stranger staring at her and that he asked "Wanna date?" before leaving the home.

Police say Mam went back twice more that week and menaced the girl and her 13-year-old sister, getting in by giving candy to a toddler, before authorities recaptured him in a local park.  He is in custody on new charges of child molestation.

Californians voted in 2006 to require that high-risk sex offenders be tracked for life with GPS monitors strapped to their bodies.   The devices are programmed to record offenders' movements and are intended, at least in part, to deter them from committing crimes. The devices, attached to rubber ankle straps embedded with fiber-optic cable, transmit signals monitored by a private contractor.

They are easy to cut off, but an alarm is triggered when that happens, as it is when they are interfered with in other ways or go dead, or when an offender enters a forbidden area such as a school zone or playground.  The monitoring company alerts parole agents by text message or email.

Arrest warrants for GPS tamperers are automatically published online.  The Times reviewed that data as well as thousands of jail logs, court documents and criminal histories provided by confidential sources.  The records show that the way authorities handle violators can vary significantly by county.

I am pleased that the LA Times is looking into how GPS tracking of sex offenders is working (or not working) in California these days.  But I am disappointed that this article, which is quick to present a few ugly examples of bad criminals committing more crimes because of the failings of GPS, does not even try to explore whether overall sex offender recidivism rates are down since GPS tracking got started in California.

Whether it is the innocent person wrongly convicted or the guilty pedophile wrongly freed, it is always going to be easy for reporters to find anecdotes to document a singular failing of any part of a massive criminal justice system.  It is much harder to determine — and yet ultimately much more important for making sound reforms — whether and how any particular part of a massive criminal justice system is doing more harm than good and thus needs to be drastically reformed or just tweaked.

February 25, 2013 at 08:46 AM | Permalink


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Recidivism studies can tell the whole story (IF the data is accurate). What is more accurate is a trained and experienced counselor who, along with a panel of law enforcement, corrections department, and the courts, makes an assessment of the risk of reoffending for each offender.
The offenders on the list aren't the problem; those who fail to register as required by law are the problem.
As the US Department of Justice has stated, there are no easy answers.

Posted by: Oswaldo | Feb 25, 2013 12:02:50 PM

The problem of offenders being able to cut off the GPS without consequence is a recent one. Because of the lag in crime statistics, anecdotal evidence is all we have in the early period after a major change.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Feb 25, 2013 7:13:21 PM

FYI, the parole union is the same as the prison guard union, and we know that in politics lying is good.

So what is really going on?

True, it would be scary as hell for a girl to wake up to a strange man in her living room. That is a very compelling scenario and google news finds pages and pages of hits on this GPS story when searching for Rithy Mam.

So why isn't he charged with a new sex crime? Wouldn't that solve it? Maybe "Wanna date?" isn't explicit enough.

It looks like his only sex crime conviction was for a non contact misdemeanor. If this is correct, he is on parole for assault with a deadly weapon and not a sex crime. The articles don't claim a violent sex crime conviction.

And just for the record, sexual battery in California is touching, not rape like it is in some states. That has to be intentionally ambiguous. As Arnie says, it's wild times on the set. Why can't the parole/prison guard union find really, actually, scary stuff, something more than alarming? True, they will probably say they are trying to prevent the violence to come, but life will never be perfect unfortunately. Anyway, the parole office probably wrote the story and the media distributed it unquestioned - far and wide. The obvious goal is to build more prisons.

Posted by: Anon | Feb 26, 2013 2:13:26 AM

given that I consider most current laws covering sex crimes illegal retroactive punishment. All I can say is good for them. Now they just need to take the next step and take the illegal GPS back to the Nazi wannabee who put it on them and beat them till they have some brains!

Posted by: rodsmith | Feb 26, 2013 4:30:21 PM

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