Three decades after they were introduced as a crime-fighting tool, electronic ankle bracelets used to track an offender's whereabouts have proliferated so much that officials are struggling to handle an avalanche of monitoring alerts that are often nothing more sinister than a dead battery, lost satellite contact or someone arriving home late from work.
Amid all that white noise, alarms are going unchecked, sometimes on defendants now accused of new crimes.
Some agencies don't have clear protocols on how to handle the multitude of alerts or don't always follow them. At times, officials took days to act, if they noticed at all, when criminals tampered with their bracelets or broke a curfew.
"I think the perception is that these people are being watched 24 hours a day by someone in a command center. That's just not happening," said Rob Bains, director of court services for Florida's Ninth Judicial Circuit Court, which this spring halted its monitoring programs after two people on the devices were accused in separate shootings.
At least 100,000 sex offenders, parolees and people free on bail or probation wear ankle bracelets that can sound an alarm if they leave home without permission, fail to show up for work or linger near a playground or school.
To assess these monitoring programs, The Associated Press queried a sample of corrections, parole and probation agencies across the U.S. for alarms logged in a one-month period and for figures regarding the number of people monitored and the number of officers watching them. The AP also reviewed audits, state and federal reports and studies done of several of these programs, which detailed problems that included officers failing to investigate alarms or take action when offenders racked up multiple violations.
Twenty-one agencies that responded to the AP inquiry logged 256,408 alarms for 26,343 offenders in the month of April alone. It adds up for those doing the monitoring. The 230 parole officers with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice handled 944 alerts per day in April. The Delaware Department of Correction, which has 31 field officers, handled 514 alarms per day.
"When we first introduced this technology officers thought they were just going to go play golf for the day," said Jock Waldo, a spokesman for Boulder, Colo.-based BI Inc., which produces about half the bracelets used in the U.S. However, the devices require scrutiny of the vast amount of data they produce, Waldo said.
Sorting through alerts, and deciding which are serious enough to merit a rapid response, can be fraught with peril.
In Syracuse, N.Y., federal probation agents wary of alarms caused by things such as lost satellite signals asked a monitoring company to contact them only if an alert lasted more than five minutes. Agents tracking child-porn suspect David Renz then missed 46 alerts in nine weeks, including one generated when he removed his bracelet in March. He then raped a 10-year-old girl and killed her mother. Renz pleaded guilty to those charges July 17.
Corrections officials in Orange County, Fla., were so inundated with alerts that they halted all real-time notifications except when people tried to remove their bracelets. That allowed Bessman Okafor, awaiting trial for a home invasion, to violate his curfew 53 times in a single month without any action being taken. During one of those outings last September, prosecutors say, Okafor shot three people, killing a 19-year-old man who was to testify against him.
In Colorado -- where the state's 212 parole officers handle an average of 15,000 alerts a month -- one officer took five days to check on the whereabouts of a paroled white supremacist after getting an alert that he had tampered with his bracelet. By the time officers issued an arrest warrant, the man had killed two people, authorities say, including the head of the state's Department of Corrections and Nathan Leon, a computer technician and pizza delivery driver.
"I hurt as much now as I did four months ago," Leon's father, John Leon, said last week. "Technology is not going to automatically issue warrants for people. It just sends an alarm that says, `This thing's been cut.' And for people to ignore it, what's the point?"
Supporters of electronic monitoring say such tragedies are the exception and that the devices are a valuable tool for authorities who previously relied only on shoe leather and the telephone to keep tabs on released prisoners. In many cases involving violence by people on trackers, the accused likely would have been free on bail or parole even if electronic monitoring didn't exist, and would have been far harder to monitor.
"No one should think this is going to be 100 percent effective," said George Runner, a former California legislator who wrote that state's voter-approved law requiring bracelets for all paroled sex offenders. "It's just a tool. When used, and used effectively, it can be not only helpful in modifying behavior, but we've heard stories about it actually preventing crimes."
Once used to track straying cows, electronic monitoring of criminals debuted in 1983, when a New Mexico judge inspired by a Spider-Man comic book allowed a man who violated probation to wear an ankle bracelet rather than go to jail. Use took off in the last decade, as technology improved and lawmakers became enamored of trackers as a cost-effective alternative to incarceration and a way of monitoring sex offenders for life.
Today, 39 states require monitoring of sex offenders. The biggest user of ankle bracelets is the federal government, which tracks people on pretrial release and probation, as well as thousands of immigrants fighting deportation.
Two types of devices are primarily used: radio frequency monitors that generate an alert when a wearer strays from a fixed location, such as a home, and GPS units that can track wearers all over town. Those GPS units can be set to sound alerts in real time or passively collect data for review later.
Manufacturers stress that these devices were never intended to be foolproof.
Most are designed to be cut off easily -- in part because they could interfere with medical equipment -- but they are made to send alerts anytime someone attempts to stretch or slice a strap. And while GPS devices allow users to pinpoint an offender's location on a computer map in real time, most officers are too busy to check until they get an alarm indicating a potential problem.
"It's virtually impossible to sit there and track a person all day," said Kelly Barnett, a union official who represents probation officers doing GPS tracking in Michigan. Barnett said that while officers see value in the monitoring, such programs also give "a false sense of security to the community."
Studies have found mixed results on the devices' value as a crime deterrent. Bill Bales, a criminology professor at Florida State University, said he believes they are beneficial. Offenders wearing them tend to stay home more with their families.
"They're glad to be in the free world, albeit tethered, rather than in prison," Bales said.