A quick search online produces dozens of how-to videos and tutorials for disabling a GPS ankle monitor. Former parole agent Juan Stacey Thomas Castillo saw the problem firsthand during his 20 year career with the California Department of Corrections.
“There’s a bunch of different ways they could beat the GPS device,” Castillo told NBC Bay Area.
It’s a vulnerability that hundreds of parolees exploit each year. The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit reviewed case records from the Department of Corrections from January 2015 through the first half of September 2016. Out of the roughly 6,000 sex offenders and violent gang members currently on parole, records revealed 2,271 cases where a county judge revoked a violator’s parole for tampering, disabling or removing a GPS tracking device. More than 500 parolees were found guilty of doing it more than once.
Now lawmakers want to enact stiffer penalties for the most dangerous offenders.
“They really need to spend some time back in prison,” state senator Pat Bates said. She represents the 36th Senate district which includes Orange and San Diego counties.
The state first identified this continuing problem after prison realignment. The move supported by Governor Jerry Brown, was designed to cut costs and reduce prison overcrowding by having parolees serve time in county jails instead of prisons.
But the law also inadvertently reduced the penalty for violent parolees who cut their GPS devices from a year in prison to a maximum 180 days in county jail. Figures from the Board of Parole Hearings showed a 19 percent rise in the number of parolees cited for cutting and disabling their GPS devices from October 2011 through September 2012, the first year after realignment took effect.
Bates believes the current sentencing guidelines are too lenient. She points to the ongoing murder case against Steve Gordon and Franc Cano. The two sex offenders are accused of killing four women in Orange County back in 2014 while on parole. Both Gordon and Cano were wearing their ankle monitors at the time of the alleged crimes, but had a history of repeatedly disabling their ankle monitors as recently as 2012.
“If they had been put in prison for three years…it’s possible that these murders would not have occurred,” Bates said.
The former parole agent Castillo says he also noticed a change after realignment.
“The parolees had the attitude – the words were spoken-- you can’t do anything to me. So what I go back [to jail] 30 days? 15 days? 60 days? it’s no big deal,” Castillo said.
While parolees caught tampering with their GPS devices can serve a maximum of 180 days in county jail, records obtained by NBC Bay Area show they often serve much less.
Court records from Santa Cruz county show in March, police arrested a man on parole for rape and assault with a deadly weapon, after he disabled his ankle monitor. The judge sentenced him to 150 days, but less than three months later, he was free and disabled his GPS device yet again. When police found him, he had stolen credit cards in his shirt pocket.
“The consequences need to be pretty severe if you cut off a tracking bracelet because when someone cuts off a tracking bracelet they’re probably inclined to commit crimes or otherwise put the community in jeopardy,” GPS technology consultant George Drake told NBC Bay Area. Drake served as the deputy director in charge of parole and probation in New Mexico and served on a task force reviewing California’s GPS program in 2010.
Now as a consultant for Correct Tech LLC, Drake advices law enforcement agencies that proper screening of early release candidates and serious consequences for parole violators are essential for any successful GPS monitoring program.
“Offenders should look at these tracking bracelets as their key to get out of jail,” Drake said, adding it’s a privilege that should only be granted to select parolees. “They should know they’re in charge of their own success.”
The National Institute of Justice provides standards for manufacturers and law enforcement agencies on how to design tracking devices. Those recommendations advise against using indestructible bracelets to allow first responders a chance to quickly cut the straps in the event of a medical emergency. Drake believes says the goal of a GPS program should be a parolee’s successful transition back into society.
Last year, Senator Bates introduced a bill that would have made it a felony for high risk offenders to remove their tracking devices. Governor Brown vetoed the bill arguing the state already has too many laws on the books.
"Over the last several decades, California's criminal code has grown to more than 5,000 separate provisions, covering almost every conceivable form of human misbehavior. During the same period, our jail and prison populations have exploded," the Govenor's stated in his veto message.
Senator Bates believes her new bill, aiming to increase the penalty for GPS parole violators, will be backed by the legislature and have a minimal impact on prison overcrowding. She plans to introduce the bill when the new legislative session begins next year.