Vermont turns to GPS

A couple of weeks ago, Vermont Public Radio broadcast that a southern Vermont county was instituting a pilot program funded by the state legislature ($300,000) to release defendants pending trial unsecured except for GPS monitoring. We all use GPS, for driving directions, locating destinations, finding cell phones and so forth. A couple of months ago, during a trip to Sweden, I used it to find my grandmotherís childhood home located in a remote forested region accessible only by logging roads. No reasonable person can reject off-hand the many advantages of this technological wonder tool. But, thatís just what it is. A tool.

Two years ago, due to the press of pretrial defendants on the Vermont jail system, a state senator and a Supreme Court judge were pushing for the use of GPS to release defendants while keeping track of them to insure their appearance and to discourage their committing crimes while awaiting the court date. At the time officials in Orange County abruptly shut down their GPS program and fired the pretrial officials involved. Why? Crimes, including murder, committed by defendants. The same thing happened in Seattle. Criminals simply committed crimes sporting their GPS devices; others took the slightly more creative route of cutting the units off. 2012 was a bad summer for GPS. Perhaps the collapse of the GPS system in these cases, both involving horrendous murders, gave Vermont officials serious pause. Regardless, the game is back on, (perhaps amped up with the astute salesmanship of GPS providers).

There is ample data after a decade of GPS usage in criminal justice, despite improvements in the technology, to demonstrate that GPS is not an ultimate fix and to expose its limitations — like flawed and false reports, breakdown of and stuttering transmissions. If your TV on demand can blow out, and freeze up at the denouement, why not GPS? Furthermore, itís only as good as the people using it.

Data also shows that GPS is most potent when allied with a surety bond. It constitutes a kind of double-hold hammer-lock on the defendant. Canít these defendants also cut off or disable, or ignore the device? Sure, but there is a back-up, one that has been working since Paleocene Age, a human sentinel. In this case a person whose financial status is at risk if the defendant absconds. All persons of goodwill wish Vermont luck in their pilot program. If it disappoints, they have proven alternative, indeed, an effective tool.