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Main story: Lost signals, disconnected lives

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Thirteen offenders told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism that Wisconsin’s GPS tracking system repeatedly fails, registering false alerts and landing the offenders in jail although they had done nothing wrong. Meanwhile, Gov. Scott Walker is proposing an expansion of nearly 50 percent in the number of offenders monitored by GPS devices.

Offenders and their advocates say that GPS breakdowns waste taxpayers’ money with unnecessary police work and lockups, and hamper offenders’ efforts to restore relationships with their families and retain jobs. The DOC says the system is reliable, but releases few details and acknowledges its performance hasn’t been audited. A key GOP legislator says an audit may be in order.

From January 2011 to November 2012, Aaron Hicks was arrested at least 12 times for parole violations related to his GPS monitor, spending 74 days in jail, records show. Among these occasions:

  • On April 9, 2011, Hicks lost his GPS signal for 17 minutes. As a result, Hicks was arrested and spent three days in Dane County Jail. Hicks indicated in a written statement that he was out apartment searching and did not receive any messages or hear his tracker beep regarding a lost signal.
  • On Oct. 7, 2011, Hicks lost his GPS signal after leaving a barbershop in Madison. A warrant was issued for his arrest and he was taken into custody; he spent three days in jail. His parole agent later explained that sometimes tall buildings and proximity to lakes make obtaining a GPS signal more difficult.
  • On June 12, 2012, Hicks was arrested for being out of tracker range during a two-hour period. Hicks wrote that he placed his tracker on the kitchen table while he watched a basketball game in an adjoining room, which he had done before without triggering alerts. He refused to admit to any violations, and was jailed for 51 days — until after he signed a statement agreeing he had failed to comply with the rules.
  • On Aug. 16, 2012, at 5:03 a.m., Hicks’ GPS equipment registered a “strap tamper alert,” raised when an offender is suspected of removing his equipment. Police took him into custody. Hicks said he was at home sleeping and did not remember any problems with the device. He spent one day in jail.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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Mario Koran reports on education, immigration and issues affecting communities of color. He is currently a New York Times local investigations fellow. Most recently, Koran was a 2021 Knight Wallace reporting fellow at the University of Michigan. Previously, Koran served as a west coast correspondent for the Guardian US and spent five years covering education for Voice of San Diego, where he was named the 2016 reporter of the year by the San Diego Society of Professional Journalists. Since leaving an internship with Wisconsin Watch in 2013, Koran’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Appeal, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, among others. Koran holds a BA in Spanish literature and MA in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.