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Monitors promise greater liberty, safety

The Baltimore Sun

Jeremiah Harper pleaded guilty this month to selling cocaine. But despite previous convictions for drugs and manslaughter, a Baltimore judge agreed to sentence him to home detention, subjected to three years of round-the-clock monitoring by a Global Positioning System device.

The 27-year-old is one of the first in Baltimore to be sentenced to this type of high-tech monitoring, the same type of system that powers navigational systems in cars. It is a punishment that could become more common in Maryland.

"Although his offense was serious, it was not violent," Assistant State's Attorney Jenifer Layman said, explaining why she didn't object to GPS monitoring, which will allow him to continue working as a janitor to support his family and newborn baby. "And Mr. Harper had also shown indications of really trying to turn his life around."

Harper's ankle bracelet transmits information on his location every few hours. It alerts his home detention monitor when the device loses its signal, is tampered with, is low on power or if Harper strays into areas deemed off-limits.

Because Harper is an adult and has already been convicted, he must foot the bill for the device - $21.50 a day, or about $23,500 over the course of his sentence. Gov. Martin O'Malley is asking legislators this year for $1 million to track 200 at-risk children in Baltimore via GPS.

"The idea is to reserve the equipment for the most at-risk kids that are going to beat standard electronic monitoring," said Kristen Mahoney, director of the Governor's Office on Crime Control and Prevention. "It's OK to have a higher price to monitor these kids because it becomes a kind of [police] force multiplier. It becomes your little detective."

Authorities across the country use GPS. By equipping 20 gang members with the technology as a condition of their parole, Los Angeles police were able to learn that one of the members was at the scene of a homicide, track his GPS trail via helicopter to a house in Compton and arrest him and six other suspects.

New Jersey parole officials found and arrested a convicted sex offender at the scene of a rape using his GPS monitor, and they have been able to rule out dozens of offenders in other cases.

Correctional officials in Montgomery and Carroll counties also use GPS technology, and the state's Parole and Probation Division is working on hiring a contractor to supply the service.

Carroll County authorities are using GPS to monitor a man convicted of a crime to "verify that he's not harassing a witness," said Deputy 1st Class Doug Welty of the Carroll County Detention Center

For Harper, the GPS device might be his final opportunity to avoid spending more time in prison. Twice convicted of cocaine possession, he watched his younger brother die in a gunfight over drugs, and then he fatally shot the man he thought had pulled the trigger. He served two years in prison for manslaughter.

Harper pleaded guilty this month to selling cocaine. Baltimore Circuit Judge John C. Themelis agreed to put him on home detention and GPS monitoring. In an interview, Themelis said that one misstep could result in Harper being sent back to prison for up to eight years, minus any time he successfully spent in the program.

"This is the first time I'd ever heard of GPS," Themelis said. "But it was described to me as a system whereby they could confirm the whereabouts of a person on home detention at any time. He was employed. He was supporting a family. And the state didn't object."

Standard electronic monitoring of people on home detention is far less sophisticated than GPS tracking. Under the traditional radio-frequency method, correctional officers can only know when offenders are home - and thus, whether they've missed curfew.

"I was trying a case where the person was on standard home detention and accused of running out of the house, around the corner, shooting someone in the head and running back," Themelis said. "His defense was that he was on home detention, and a brief breach of the zone - oftentimes it's considered a [glitch] in the system and not reported. The long and short of it was that the home-monitoring agency couldn't really tell me whether it was a bleep, or whether or not the defendant ran out of the house, around the corner and back."

The most advanced GPS systems, called "active systems," can pinpoint someone's whereabouts in real time with about 100-foot accuracy. Depending on the capabilities of the system, as well as the requested intensity of the monitoring, an offender's GPS trail is automatically uploaded to a secure Web site every minute to every four to six hours.

For the system to be useful, however, that Web site has to be regularly checked.

"We still do our homework," said Arthur Wallenstein, director of the Montgomery County Corrections Department of Correction and Rehabilitation. "Slapping somebody with a GPS unit does not create public safety. It's merely a tool."

That's because GPS systems can suffer signal failures just like cell phones. When someone enters the Harbor Tunnel, for instance, communication with satellites is broken.

Several cities and counties have found less-sophisticated GPS systems - called "passive" systems - to be inadequate. In a passive system, an offender plugs the GPS unit into a holster at the end of the day, which triggers data transmission. Under this system, an offender's whereabouts aren't digitally tracked until that happens.

Tammy Brown, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, said that if the General Assembly approves $1 million for GPS tracking of at-risk children, the agency plans to use an active monitoring system.

The GPS trails would be checked round-the-clock from the Baltimore Police Department's watch center, where the city's street cameras are monitored.

"The idea of having it in the watchtower is that working with police, they'll be able to help us when kids go into an area where they're not supposed to be," Brown said. "They'll be able to quickly notify a patrol officer, who can help respond."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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