Gaps revealed in Calif. GPS tracking of ex-cons
County Probation Department lost track of some ex-cons and juvenile delinquents for days, sometimes weeks, at a time because of flaws with its GPS electronic monitoring system
By Christina Villacorte
LOS ANGELES, Calif. — The county Probation Department lost track of some ex-cons and juvenile delinquents for days, sometimes weeks, at a time because of flaws with its GPS electronic monitoring system, Probation Chief Jerry Powers said Tuesday.
“This is a blueprint for how not to implement a GPS program,” Powers admitted to the Board of Supervisors, while adding that corrective measures are underway.
GPS ankle bracelets are supposed to help probation officers monitor the location of about 430 adults, most of them released from state prisons, and 550 juveniles.
Since 2008, the Probation Department has relied on Irvine-based Sentinel Offender Services to provide and monitor the devices, which send out alerts whenever probationers are in an “exclusion zone” or in a blind spot where their signal can’t be picked up.
When the Orange County Probation Department in 2013 terminated its contract with Sentinel, citing “gross negligence,” and news outlets reported lawsuits over billing problems involving Sentinel in the East Coast, Powers ordered an audit and was dismayed by what he called “the magnitude of the failure.”
“We found issues around equipment failure (and) they weren’t providing the monitoring service that they were supposed to provide,” he told the board. “We found that offenders were being placed into inactive status without consulting with Probation, and we found that they weren’t complying with the hookup requirements of placing offenders’ equipment on them within 24 hours.”
Another issue was that Sentinel issued as many as 20,000 alerts each day, which Powers called “an overwhelming data dump.”
Many of the alerts were for a low battery, entering a blind spot and entering an exclusion zone. Not all probationers are barred from being near schools or parks — typically, only sex offenders are under that prohibition — but Sentinel sent out alerts every time probationers went near them.
Moreover, it sent out all alerts to all 37 probation officers in the program — even those that had nothing to do with the individuals they were monitoring.
“When any offender who is on GPS gets on the Blue Line or drives to work every morning, they may drive past 10 schools and 10 parks and create 20 alerts for us,” he said. “And staff aren’t able to clear those alerts so (when the probationer) gets back in the car and drives home, it creates 20 more alerts.”
“This is not about deputy probation officers’ performance,” Powers said. “Frankly, 20,000 alerts are overwhelming no matter how many probation officers you have.”
Supervisor Michael Antonovich seemed inclined to terminate the contract with Sentinel outright.
“If he’s an inferior contractor, that’s his problem,” Antonovich said. “He failed and we should take action and begin the process of bringing in the new contractor.”
Powers, however, said county counsel advised him to follow due process and give Sentinel an opportunity to correct the problems. He said another audit of their performance is underway and would be completed within a few weeks. In the meantime, the department is preparing to solicit bids when the existing contract expires.
In his response to the audit last fall, Sentinel’s business development chief Mark Contestabile said the company will meet it obligations but the Probation Department should have notified them of the changes it needed.
“We need to have better communication so issues can be addressed in a timely manner in order for the program to be successful,” he wrote. “We are committed to providing any hardware and software upgrades requested by the department.”
Powers also admitted probation managers — not the rank-and-file — deserve some of the blame.
“I think we have to spend some time taking our lumps, frankly,” Powers said. “In reviewing how Probation implemented and how we operated the program, it was very clear to me that it was not a best practice — wasn’t close to a best practice.”
“Really, the failure was the department’s failure, completely,” Supervisor Gloria Molina said. “A contractor is going to try to get away with whatever he can get away with and he’s not going to customize to your needs unless you tell them.”