Rossen Reports

GPS monitoring fail: Some felons continue to prey despite bracelets

July 23, 2014 at 7:39 AM ET

When high-risk criminals, including convicted rapists and child predators, are released from prison, many are forced to wear ankle bracelets with GPS monitoring. Parole officers can watch their every move, and if they stray, alarms go off. 

But a Rossen Reports investigation uncovered cases across the country of officers asleep at the switch, even ignoring those alarms, allowing the violent offenders to strike again.

Darrin Sanford, a registered sex offender convicted of luring children, was considered so dangerous when he was released from prison in January 2009 that officers made him wear a GPS ankle monitor. The following month, near Vancouver, Washington, Sanford encountered 13-year-old Alycia Nipp in a restricted area near kids, a place he wasn't allowed to be.

GPS showed he was there, but officers weren't watching. Sanford followed Alycia into a field, sexually assaulted her and beat her to death.

Video: When high-risk criminals leave prison, many must wear ankle bracelets with GPS monitoring. But an NBC News investigation uncovered cases of parole officers asleep at the switch, allowing violent offenders to strike again. National investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen reports.

"They knew," said Alycia's aunt, Amber Neff. "They knew the entire time. And they could've taken him in and they didn't. And now she's gone. And we'll never see her again."

Parole officers say it's just too costly to track criminals in real time. But the makers of GPS bracelets say the technology is available, and it's dangerous not to use it.

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To demonstrate how the technology works, NBC News national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen donned an ankle bracelet, enabling officers to monitor him in real time. The moment he walked into a restricted zone, the bracelet vibrated. Then a voice came out of it, saying, "This is the monitoring center. We see that you're not in the your inclusion zone. Do you have permission to be outside this area?"

When Rossen continued walking, an alarm wailed. And then a text alert was sent to the parole officer monitoring him. "The bracelets even send an alert when a criminal tries to tamper with it," the officer said.

But if no one responds to the alarm, bad things happen.

“The reality is, the technology is only as good as what we do with the information. The technology provides the information, but it’s going to take human intervention to follow up,” said Derek Cassell, president of Secure Alert, a global tracking and electronic monitoring services company. 

Last year in Colorado, parolee Evan Ebel ripped his ankle bracelet off and went on a shooting spree, killing Tom Clements, a father of two, and Nathan Leon, a pizza delivery driver, before he was killed in a shootout with authorities. Officials said they followed procedures.

In upstate New York last year, David Renz was out on parole and tampered with his GPS bracelet. A whopping 46 tamper alerts went to local authorities, but officers ignored them all. Renz went on to murder school librarian Lori Bresnahan and rape a 10-year old girl. 

"What's going on here is the bracelets are going off just as they're supposed to, and the human beings behind it are not responding, and there's no excuse for that," said Rep. Dan Maffei, a New York Democrat.

"I put forth legislation to set a national standard," Maffei added. "It would provide a watchdog on these probation offices to make sure someone is watching the watchers."

The legislation has not been passed, and victims' relatives say tragedies will happen again unless Congress takes action.

"It's really a shame because a precious life was lost and she was an amazing child, and it could have been avoided," said Alycia Nipp's aunt, Amber Neff. "It didn't have to happen."

Parole officials across the country are taking action to fix the gaps. The Washington Department of Corrections has re-trained its officers to better handle GPS monitoring. In upstate New York, some were even fired. 

Many parole officials say these GPS ankle bracelets are designed to be a deterrent and won’t prevent crimes if a criminal decides to re-offend. It also comes down to resources; having enough personnel hired and trained and budgets large enough to incorporate the latest and most advance real-time monitoring systems. But there are just too many parolees and not enough officers to watch their every move. 

In addition to making it a federal crime to tamper with a monitoring bracelet, Maffei’s legislation, the Federal Probation System Reform Act (H.R. 3669), would also allocate more funds to support monitoring programs. 

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