GPS Tracking of Criminals . . . and Everyone Else?

William Saletan looks at GPS tracking of convicted child molesters and others. He demonstrates rather convincingly that the use is likely to spread to increasingly less dangerous criminals, perhaps eventually even to non-criminals.

These “Global Positioning System” (GPS) monitors are the latest rage in crime-fighting. Jurisdictions in half the states are reportedly using them. The Journal of Offender Monitoring (yes, that’s its name) estimates the monitored population at 120,000. Lawmakers promote GPS as high-tech medievalism, a way to get tough on perverts who can’t be kept in jail. But the economics of the “offender-monitoring industry” tell a different story. Most jurisdictions are buying GPS not to confine criminals, but to release them.


By and large, it isn’t the most dangerous inmates who are getting GPS anklets. It’s the least dangerous ones. They’re the first to be let out of jail when money and space run low. One hundred state and local jurisdictions are reportedly using GPS to track nonviolent juvenile offenders. You think that’s hard on the kids? Think again. It lets them go to school. And consider the alternatives. Some kids in the California youth system have been put in cages. People living near a juvenile delinquent “ranch” in Santa Clara County want a fence to keep kids inside. Officials there hope GPS can solve the problem less drastically.


What worries some civil libertarians about Florida’s GPS tracking is that it’s permanent. But for sex offenders, permanent constraints are nothing new. They’re required to register everywhere they go. Cities commonly set up zoning restrictions to limit their movement. Miami Beach is trying to make it impossible for them to live there. Eight states allow chemical “castration,” though courts require the convict’s consent. One of every three states allows “civil commitment,” which keeps sexually violent predators in jail even after they’ve finished their sentences, to protect the public. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld this practice.

Look at the historical trend. We used to kill child molesters. Then we decided we didn’t have to kill them, since we could imprison them for life. Then it turned out we didn’t have to imprison them for life, since we could put them on radio-frequency monitors that kept them home. Now we don’t have to keep them home, since GPS lets us track them wherever they go. The longer the leash, the greater their freedom.

That’s good as far as it goes. So long as GPS tracking is effective, it’s infinitely smarter public policy than confinement. Keeping people locked up is incredibly expensive and in many ways counter-productive.

But there’s a catch:

As GPS gets cheaper, politicians will be tempted to order it not just for people who would otherwise be jailed, but for those who wouldn’t. Some jurisdictions authorize it for all sex offenders, including teenage boys with underage girlfriends. Others are extending it to abusive husbands, stalkers, and gang members who might intimidate witnesses. Others are using it to enforce curfews on wayward juveniles. In Britain, some auto insurers use it to monitor drivers. And just this morning, police in Florida had to hunt down a sexual predator the old-fashioned way after he cut off his ankle bracelet. If anklets can’t track sex offenders reliably, the next step may be GPS implants. Just you watch.

Even the most hard-core civil libertarian has little problem with tracking the whereabouts of sexual predators who, by the nature of their wiring, are virtually guaranteed to strike again if not monitored. But how far will we let it go?

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Science & Technology, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. You ask hofar will we let it go? Go reread 1984. We’re already quite far along.

  2. Jay says:

    I have to agree with this sentiment:

    You convict someone, punish them, and are done. If the punishment/incarceration is too little/short and leads to a desire to track or constrain the person who has completed the assigned price of the crime, then increase the original punishment.

    Once the punishment is done, that’s it. The rest is bull. If what society wants is for a child molester never to have a chance to do it again, then make the term life without parole, death, chemical castration, or whatever.

  3. htom says:

    Do you know where your CongressCritter really is?

  4. Brian J. says:

    As I’ve said, child molesters are our unpopular canaries in the coal mine. Law enforcement puts the most onerous restriction on child predators because they can paint anyone who opposes the invasive sanctions as pro-child molester.

    Once the restrictions are in place, they’ll seep into other crimes with less resistance. After all, those sanctions already exist.