Cody McCormick spent much of the past seven years incarcerated or on probation after having been convicted of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct in Minnesota.
Since he had his supervision transferred to his home state of Wisconsin in late 2016, McCormick has been repeatedly thrown in jail. He lost a job. And he continues to be disturbed by corrections officials calling him — sometimes in the middle of the night.
McCormick says these barriers to reintegrating into the community stem from a GPS ankle bracelet, which — unlike in Minnesota — he is required by Wisconsin law to wear for life. As of January, Wisconsin monitored 1,258 offenders on GPS devices at an annual cost of about $9.7 million.
Five years after the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism documented serious problems with the state’s GPS monitoring program for offenders — false alerts that have landed offenders in jail, disrupted family lives and led to lost jobs — inefficiencies and inaccuracies with the system remain, according to state and county records and 16 offenders interviewed for this story.
Such problems have led some law enforcement and other officials to doubt the program’s ability to ensure public safety and assist offenders in reintegrating into their communities.
Since the 2013 report, the cost of the program and the number of offenders under monitoring have roughly doubled. Lawmakers never followed through on calls to study the system in the wake of WCIJ’s report. State officials have been unable to produce records of any evaluation of the system’s reliability or effectiveness.
Offender: Problems from the start
McCormick, 29, said his troubles with GPS monitoring began soon after being fitted with an ankle bracelet in February 2017. Records show the tracker — made by Boulder, Colorado-based BI Inc. — was not communicating with the Department of Corrections’ Electronic Monitoring Center in Madison because of poor cellular reception at his grandmother’s house in rural Monroe County, where he lived.
And even though police found him exactly where he was supposed to be, McCormick was taken to jail for about three days. As a result, he lost his job at his family’s restaurant.
Ten months later, McCormick was incarcerated again, this time for five days. Records from the Sparta Police Department show the arrest stemmed from McCormick allegedly being located next to a library — a zone off-limits for him — for an hour. McCormick said he only drove past it; his roommate, who was with him, affirmed this version of the incident.
McCormick’s difficulties persisted. This January, McCormick was briefly jailed on a warrant for allegedly tampering with the bracelet. A police report said McCormick showed them he had not tampered with it. Officials did not charge him with a crime — although tampering is a felony offense. He was later fitted with a new one.
“It’s not just the people who are on monitoring devices (who are affected),” McCormick said. “It’s their family, their jobs, their social life.”
Broad flaws revealed
McCormick’s story illustrates broader flaws with Wisconsin’s GPS monitoring program, which relies on both cell phone and satellite services to track offenders.
WCIJ reviewed data from a single month, May 2017, to more deeply explore the high volume of alerts being triggered by Wisconsin’s monitored offenders. In all, Wisconsin offenders in May generated more than 260,000 GPS alerts, 81,000 of which corrections officials sorted through manually.
The review found:
• The state monitoring center lost cell connection 56,853 times with 895 offenders that month — or an average of about 64 times per offender.
• Most offenders on monitoring across the state experienced loss of satellite signal, generating 32,766 alerts — half of which were serious enough to be investigated.
• Of the 52 arrest warrants issued by the DOC monitoring center, service request records indicate 13 involved offenders whose equipment was having technical problems around the same time.
• DOC employees submitted 135 requests regarding technical problems with GPS tracking devices — 93 for charging or battery issues with ankle bracelets, 12 for signals lost, 14 for false tamper alerts.
BI Inc., which supplies the ankle bracelets and other monitoring equipment, declined to answer questions about reported problems with its technology.
Wisconsin DOC officials said the benefits of the program outweigh any technical drawbacks. Spokesman Tristan Cook said the bracelets provide a “deterrent effect since offenders know they are being tracked.”
But some law enforcement officials who deal with Wisconsin’s GPS program have seen false alerts and the damage they can cause.
Price County Sheriff Brian Schmidt recalled an incident in which he refused to detain a GPS-monitored offender with a warrant because it appeared to stem from a device malfunction.
“If … you find a gentleman in bed, and the monitor is failing, even though I have the (apprehension) request, I’m less likely to put that person in jail,” Schmidt said.
DOC sees it another way. “There is no such thing as a ‘false alert,’” Cook said. He said the law requires offenders to be taken into custody until such alerts can be resolved; DOC can have them jailed for up to three days to determine whether a violation occurred.
‘Unnecessary disruption’ and questionable results
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 88,000 offenders were strapped with GPS bracelets in 2015 — 30 times more than the 2,900 offenders who were tracked a decade earlier. Wisconsin had a daily average of about 1,500 offenders on tracking in 2017–18 — a nearly 10-fold increase from 158 offenders in 2008–09.
Some experts say GPS monitoring can be a useful tool in providing structure, reducing recidivism, allowing offenders to work and lowering costs compared to incarceration. But technological problems can get in the way of those benefits.
Mike Nellis, editor of the Journal of Offender Monitoring — which covers the use of monitoring technology to enhance public safety — said such problems can undercut the program.
“To suddenly find yourself carted back to prison for something that is in no way your fault seems to me to be quite an unnecessary disruption in the life of an offender — and quite at odds with good practice in reintegrating them,” Nellis said.
Cecelia Klingele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison associate law professor who specializes in correctional policy, said the DOC is in a difficult position when it knows that some, or even many, of the alerts it receives are caused by equipment malfunctions.
“Even short periods of jail are highly disruptive and can cause a person to lose his job, be unable to care for children, or even lose stable housing,” Klingele said.
Susan Turner, a professor of criminology, law and society at University of California-Irvine, argues such systems do not provide much benefit for the cost.
In a 2015 study on California’s GPS program that she co-authored, Turner found the system does reduce recidivism, but only for administrative violations such as failure to register as a sex offender, not for criminal sex and assault violations, where recidivism is already “very low.”
Technical malfunctions lead to jailings
Offenders interviewed by WCIJ say they generally have experienced fewer malfunctions as time passes. Jessa Nicholson Goetz, a Madison-based criminal defense attorney, said that technological improvements have largely resolved the malfunctions her clients experienced.
Still, problems do remain.
James Morgan — a sex offender profiled in WCIJ’s original report who was jailed for alleged GPS violations at least eight times between 2011 and March 2013 — has been arrested three times since then for alleged GPS violations. DOC records show that one time was for a lost signal, which was not Morgan’s fault. In another case, Morgan said, his bracelet malfunctioned.
If found guilty of violating the terms of his monitoring, Morgan, 58, could be returned to prison for years. That prospect keeps him up at night.
“I could potentially never walk out,” Morgan said as his daughter, Angela, and new wife, Rachel, listened beside him.
George Drake, president of Correct Tech LLC, an Albuquerque-based corrections technology consulting company, said agencies should use more discretion.
“If I take this guy into custody, for this two-minute curfew violation, it’s going cost (the offender) his job, and he won’t be able to pay the victim his restitution, and it’s going to create an awful lot of hardships,” Drake said.
A life still interrupted
On an early August evening with the summer sun setting behind them, McCormick, his fiancée Breanna Kerssen and a friend packed boxes of belongings into two aging Acura sedans and drove down a winding country road away from his grandmother’s house to an apartment in Sparta where McCormick hoped better cell reception would give him a life less interrupted by the corrections system.
“I was tired about getting phone calls (from the monitoring center),” McCormick said as he surveyed his new yard. “Here, I don’t have to worry about that as much.”
McCormick’s optimism, it turns out, was misplaced.
In addition to two more arrests since moving to Sparta, the monitoring center called McCormick in October when he came within half a block of a liquor store, which is one of his exclusion zones. Another time, he had to return home early from helping with his grandmother’s fall yard cleanup.
The monitoring center said it could not gain a signal.
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.