On July 31, 2012, James Morgan stands in his Madison bedroom with a Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism photographer. On several occasions, his GPS monitor begins flashing, indicating he is out of range, even though Morgan is well within boundaries determined by his parole agent. The Center spoke with a dozen offenders who said such issues as lost signals are landing them in jail repeatedly. Lukas Keapproth/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
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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.

How can Wisconsin’s electronic monitoring using GPS devices be made more reliable and effective? Here are some suggestions drawn from interviews with experts:

Problem: The Wisconsin Department of Corrections does not keep statistics on how many GPS offenders trigger alerts, and does not track how often these result in offenders being incarcerated.

Solution: George Drake, a corrections technology consultant, said agencies that implement GPS tracking should have clearly stated objectives for using the technology and should conduct audits on a biannual or yearly basis.

Problem: GPS monitoring may have little long-term effect on recidivism or behavioral change.

Solution: Robert Gable, who helped design the first electronic monitoring system used to track offenders, said it can be used to promote positive behavioral change by offering “modest incentives” to offenders who follow the rules.

Problem: Probation and parole agents have insufficient time and resources to meet the demands of supervising caseloads of GPS clients.

Solution: A 2012 evaluation of the California supervision program recommended smaller or specialized caseloads for GPS-tracked offenders and better risk-assessment to identify appropriate GPS candidates.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) 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. 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.