Trial of GPS monitoring of offenders nears

MONDAY , 11 APRIL 2005
The Corrections Department expects to start trialling GPS monitoring devices that can track offenders by satellite in June and will kick off trials of voice recognition software later this month.

The department announced last year that both futuristic technologies would be investigated to see if they could improve the monitoring of offenders on parole and those subject to extended supervision orders, including sex offenders.

Tracy Mellor, manager of operational policy and planning, says the department hopes to make recommendations on whether and how GPS tracking could be used by the end of the year, and whether the department would need "extra resources".

She says there are no foregone conclusions. "It's not something we want to rush."

More details are emerging about the satellite-tracking trial and what the technology is capable of, though plans for the trial won't be finalised till "mid to late May".

Volunteers will trial two GPS "StaR" transreceivers supplied by Israeli company Elmo-Tech.

These complement rather than replace conventional ankle bracelets.

The GPS units are designed to be carried by offenders when they leave their house and to record and store details of their movements.

The unit is capable of sending an alert if the offender approaches or travels somewhere they are not allowed to be at any given time, moves within a given range of a pre-set location such as a school or park, or tampers with the device.

It is understood the transceiver is set up to expect regular radio signals from the offender's ankle bracelet, so an alarm would be triggered by the GPS unit if the offender discarded it or left home without it.

This means that while satellite-tracking would be capable of checking whether an offender stuck to their regime, it would not be possible to use a GPS unit to track down an offender if they absconded.

Ms Mellor says her understanding is that it is not yet possible to physically secure a GPS unit to an offender, though that appears to be the next step in home detention technology.

"That technology is not available, though we are aware the UK is exploring developing technology which would have a locator unit in some way permanently attached to the individual."

A common problem with GPS tracking - likely to come under close scrutiny during the trials - is that it can be hard to maintain "a fix" if the signal from a GPS transreceiver is obscured by tall buildings, tunnels or other obstacles.

As an optional extra, Elmo-Tech's devices are capable of sending and receiving text messages, so staff monitoring offenders can communicate directly with them through what Elmo-Tech describes as a "friendly user interface".

Corrections has selected voice recognition software developed by Israeli firm Persay to make it easier to check whether offenders are at home when called.

Using Persay's technology, offenders would be called up automatically and asked to repeat a phrase into the handset. The software would send an alert if the voice didn't match that recorded on the system.

Corrections says Persay's system will be trialled by 150 staff.

Other Persay customers include British telco BT.