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GPS Tracking of Criminals

written by: •edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 1/5/2010

It's a growing trend: tracking criminals with GPS. It's a complex issue, one with numerous advantages and disadvantages on a many fronts, economic, ethical and legal. This article describes something of the debate.

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    The Economics

    We'll start with one of the less subjective issues. GPS units are expensive. They're expensive to develop as tamper-proof and jamming-proof, they're expensive to build, and they're even quite expensive to monitor. At current, GPS tracking systems aren't being used instead of any other tracking mechanisms. As such, agencies require new money to fund all this, and that money has to come from somewhere during current budget woes.

    So, GPS tracking of criminals isn't economically practical—at least, after they've gotten out of jail. What about substituting strictly monitored GPS tracking instead of a incarceration? Think of it as highly restrictive parole. One could ensure that a suspect doesn't go back to their old ways, while saving a lot of taxpayer money while they're at it.

    This would certainly lighten the load on an overburdened criminal system, freeing up money for any number of other purposes, such as for harm reduction and rehabilitation programs to prevent crime in the first place. The idea's been toyed with by legislators, but never implemented.

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    The Efficacy

    Many have challenged the usefulness of GPS tracking for criminals—or at least, the image that it will completely prevent certain types of crimes from happening. Since GPS tracking of criminals has begun, there have been deaths at the hands of those being tracked, indicating that the system does not do nearly as much good as once hoped. After all, just because you know someone's location doesn't mean you know what they're doing there. GPS tracking might make for good evidence after the crime has been committed, but it doesn't directly prevent the crime from happening. In essence, it can create a false sense of security when people overestimate its capabilities.

    GPS tracking devices are also not fool proof. They may be jammed quite easily, GPS signals being quite weak. The devices may also be removed with a little bit of trouble, leaving the criminal unfettered while police scamper to locate him. Nor do they do much good in crowded indoor environments such as malls or apartment buildings, where a criminal act may be committed without the GPS device providing foolproof evidence that it was, in fact, the perp.

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    The Ethics

    Here's the tricky bit. Ought one track criminals after they have served their sentence?

    Many feel that it must be distinguished by the criminal. There is little sense in tracking white collar criminals, for instance, but sex offenders—who already have lists of their name and location published publicly—are a hot target for tracking devices. The idea is that by actually enforcing existing restrictions on their movement, such as being within a given distance of a school, will work to prevent further offenses by repeat sex offenders. Another use is to enforce restraining orders, which might also prevent many deaths by the hands of violent stalkers or exes.

    Still, at least in theory, these people have already served their sentence: after they have done so, why continue the punishment? GPS tracking devices are large and conspicuous, and what certainly interrupt the daily life of a criminal once free, preventing them from reintegrating into society and thus making them even more likely to resort to crime again. And then there are the privacy issues: once free, does a government body, even in the name of prevention, have the right to such a deep invasion of privacy as tracking location? Some have argued lifelong tracking as mandated by many states as unconstitutional. This is a tricky dilemma to resolve.

    And, ought GPS tracking systems replace traditional incarceration? Maybe not in all cases—murder being a good example of this. Jail is as much punitive as keeping people genuinely dangerous to society off the streets. But for minor crimes, many people see it as just a more restrictive parole, a much more constructive way to rehabilitate someone.

    Another nice little advantage of this system is that those who have committed soft crimes won't be exposed to hardened criminals, a notorious problem where people who just committed minor crimes are transformed by their jail time into something that society really has to fear.

    Still, the danger of letting criminals out on the street before they've learned their lesson is a frightening one, and one that people aren't likely to abide by without some serious protections.

    For some excellent pieces discussing this complex issue, check out both the links within this article, and the following:

    More States Move To Use GPS Tracking of Sex Offenders – Fox News

    GPS sex offender tracking. Detailed breakdown of terms, laws and costs.

    Why GPS tracking is good news for inmates – Slate.com

    Attack of the Perv Trackers – Wired.com