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Global positioning to track sex offenders

Global positioning systems and electronic bracelets will be used to track more than 200 of the state's most serious sex offenders on probation or parole starting early next year, Governor Mitt Romney and state lawmakers announced yesterday.

Under a $1 million pilot program Romney signed into law on Friday, the tracking system would alert probation officers when offenders violate conditions of their release by entering an ''exclusion zone," such as a school, a playground, or the home of a prior victim. Using cellular technology, the system records and sends a record of the exact date, time, and location of the violation via text message or e-mail to the officer handling the case.

''We're working hard together to make sure that if you're a dangerous sex predator, Massachusetts is your worst nightmare," Romney said. ''This is an ongoing effort. We will not rest until we know that every child, every citizen in our Commonwealth feels that they can be safe from dangerous sex crimes."

All 219 level three sex offenders on probation or parole in Massachusetts will be fitted with the device at the cost of $10 per person per day, he said. The state's remaining 896 level three offenders have already completed their parole or probation and are only required to register as sex offenders. Level three sex offenders are those deemed the most dangerous and most likely to reoffend.

The sex offender tracking program will be the first statewide GPS initiative in Massachusetts. Currently, GPS tracking of people convicted of various crimes is in place in more than 30 other states. Romney said that the results of this pilot program would dictate whether to expand it to other offenses. The $1 million appropriated will finance the program for approximately four months, and Romney will ask the Legislature to fund the program for a full year in the 2006 budget.

The Middlesex County sheriff was the first to use GPS tracking in Massachusetts. That program, piloted in March, monitors 30 inmates in the county's work release program, and acts as ''one more check to ensure that the inmate is going to and from their workplace," said Mark Lawhorne, spokesman for the sheriff's office.

Unlike present passive systems of electronic monitoring, which only tell officers when the offender enters or exits his home, the active GPS system will allow the officer to locate the offender to within 10 yards of his location, said Senator Steven C. Panagiotakos, a Lowell Democrat who sponsored the budget provision for the program.

The legislator said research for the bill indicated that states with the tracking system have seen a decrease in repeat sex offenses. He said he expects similar results in Massachusetts and asserted that the program will protect ''neighborhoods and our families" from convicted sex offenders who are on probation.

''If you are a level three sex offender and doing the right thing, you probably want this on, because you won't be called in by police every time something happens in your area," Panagiotakos said. ''They are going to know where you were."

In addition to alerting police to parole violations, Romney said, the new program will track sex offenders if they move from one town to another and fail to register there, because police can monitor the offender every hour of the day. In January, a Woburn woman and her daughter were allegedly killed by a level three sex offender who was registered in Lowell, but frequented the area of the slayings.

The system requires that the offender wear two pieces of equipment: an ankle bracelet and a GPS tracking unit on the waist. Parole officers would be alerted if the distance between the two units exceeds a limit -- signaling one piece of equipment has been removed -- or if the bracelet is cut. The ankle bracelet ensures that the offender does not wander from the GPS unit.

An earlier version of the GPS tracking legislation would have permitted tracking for all level three offenders, but was limited to those on parole and probation because the program would have been left open to constitutional challenge, Panagiotakos said.

Civil libertarians argue that once convicted felons complete their probation, they should not be subject to close surveillance by the state. The new tracking requirement follows a court ruling earlier this summer that allowed the state to post the names and addresses of level three sex offenders on the Internet.

A civil liberties activist yesterday argued that there might be better ways to spend money on protecting victims, rather than creating a new form of survelliance. ''Since the law has been limited to people under state control, the question is whether or not this is the best place to spend money if you are interested in crime control," said Ann Lambert, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. ''The reason to have supervision of people when they come out of prison is both a surveillance and a support function. Probation will end, and you want people to function in society when it ends."

''You shouldn't be hypersurveilled to the point which it's counterproductive and the surveillance is so pervasive that you are functionally locked up and not capable of operating in the free world," she added.

''This is only level three sex offenders, and in this case, the needs of public safety outweigh the sensitivity associated with those individuals," Romney said.

Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey said the administration is working with legislators to pass an omnibus bill that would toughen sentences for sex offenders.

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