CALIFORNIA – Tens of thousands of electronic alerts caused by sex offender missteps have gone unresolved, a situation that the state is trying to correct this week with a massive push to get the backlog under control.
Parole supervisors are following up on more than 31,000 alarms in Southern California, caused by low batteries, lost signals, entry into forbidden zones or severed straps on electronic ankle bracelets.
Parole administrators got their orders June 3, the day after a state inspector general’s report found lax GPS supervision of paroled sex offender John Albert Gardner III, who went on to kill two San Diego County teenagers.
The backlog has developed since March 19, when the department committed to resolve “all alerts and violations” by sex offenders, in response to the Gardner case.
Officials say the backlog grew because they lacked software to run an ongoing report of all unresolved cases. That is, supervisors in Southern California were working only with reports of new alarms, rather than a report showing previous alarms that had not been cleared.
The retroactive reports have been available for the past week, revealing the backlog, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Gordon Hinkle said.
“We have stated several times that GPS is an evolving science, where technology and best practices continue to be fluid,” Hinkle said by e-mail. “This is a new policy, and as CDCR leads the nation in GPS development, more improvements will be made.”
Agents and union leaders complain that the new emphasis on GPS monitoring by computer keeps them from performing important work in the field, where they can more effectively track dangerous offenders.
“This policy has created so much busy work that this work cannot get done,” said Melinda Silva, the Parole Agents Association of California president. “The real work of getting out and supervising these people is not getting done.”
Hinkle said the department is reviewing workloads for agents handling GPS cases. Clearing the backlog will help, he said.
“Once this reconciliation process is cleared, case management will become more manageable,” he said.
GPS monitoring can be a powerful tool, judging by the report this month by the state’s independent inspector general, David Shaw. He concluded that Amber Dubois, 14, of Escondido and Chelsea King, 17, of Poway would likely still be alive if agents had done a better job watching Gardner, who served five years in prison and three years on parole for a 2000 molestation conviction.
Among other mistakes, agents failed to check Gardner’s GPS tracks, which showed he broke curfew at least 168 times and visited remote areas near where he later hid Amber’s remains, the report found. GPS data also show he visited a state prison, which could be a felony. GPS data from 2008 show he parked in an area where officials say contraband is smuggled into the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility on Otay Mesa Road.
A spokeswoman for Shaw said Monday she could not address the unresolved alerts without seeing documentation, but noted the review included proposals to improve monitoring of sex offenders.
“As we said in our report, the Office of the Inspector General recommended strategies that could allow the (corrections) department to more effectively review and use GPS data,” spokeswoman Laura Hill said.
According to records obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune, unresolved alerts totaled more than 31,000 in Region III, which is Los Angeles , and Region IV, which includes counties from San Bernardino to the border with Mexico.
The problem grew so severe that administrators and unit supervisors held a special meeting last week at Region IV headquarters in Diamond Bar.
New reports documenting alerts will be developed every week by the company that supplies the GPS anklets, administrators wrote, in part because “the district management report is inaccurate.”
The alerts listed on more than a dozen pages of internal documents range from simple low-battery warnings to so-called strap tampers, when a parolee cuts off the buckle and removes the tracking system.
GPS devices need to be charged every 12 hours, creating a challenge for homeless parolees who lack a steady source of electricity.
Records also show thousands of inclusion- and exclusion-zone alarms, when parolees enter or leave restricted areas, as well as “message gaps” and “no GPS” cases, when signals are lost for some period of time.
Peggy Conway, editor of the Journal of Offender Monitoring, said most alerts are inconsequential, like low-battery signals or exclusion-zone warnings when a parolee drives past a school or park.
“What (agents) are going to do is gloss over a lot of them because they know what they are,” she said. “Hopefully there are some that catch their attention and get them to say, ‘Hmmm, we need to take a closer look at this one.’ ”
California spends about $60 million a year tracking 7,000 or so convicted sex offenders with GPS systems.
Nonetheless, the technology’s effectiveness has been questioned by agents, lawmakers and criminal-justice experts because parole officials place so much emphasis on where parolees go rather than what they do.
Retired parole supervisor Rebecca Hernandez said she relied on lower-paid staff to monitor GPS tracks when she oversaw a sex-offenders unit in Huntington Park.
“Interns were awesome in a lot of the stuff they could do, which freed up the agents,” said Hernandez, who retired in January after collecting a $900,000 settlement to a discrimination claim she filed against the department. “As long as you don’t give them personal data, it’s fine.”
Keeping sworn peace officers indoors to read GPS data and constantly respond to GPS alerts is not the best use of the agents’ time, Hernandez said.
“You’re putting community safety at risk,” she said. “It means you’re telling agents not to go out in the field and monitor these parolees.”
Silva said the department took the unusual step last week of approving overtime so agents could resolve the alarms quickly. Even so, her members are overwhelmed with the workload, she said.
“They’re tired. They’re burned,” Silva said. “Most people aren’t about the overtime. They want to do a good job and go home at the end of the day.”