GPS to help domestic abuse victims

The state is preparing to launch a pilot program aimed a keeping victims of domestic violence safer, but even proponents say the high-tech solution comes with unanswered questions.

The year-long pilot program will allow judges in Bridgeport, Danielson and Hartford to order domestic violence offenders who ignore restraining orders to wear GPS ankle bracelets. Their victims will carry small devices that will alert police if their abusers come within one mile.

What’s still to be figured out is how to deal with the inevitable accidental violations.

“Of course there is always the possibility of some error. Police will have to use their discretion of when to respond,” said William Carbone, executive director of the Court Support Services Division of the Judicial Branch.

The legislature’s Domestic Violence Task Force estimates that 50,000 people are victims of domestic violence each year. The Judicial Branch reports there were 45,000 protective and restraining orders issued in fiscal 2009, and there were 946 convictions for violating those orders in calendar year 2009.

Erika Tindill, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said there have been several cases where a GPS warning system might have saved a life. One was that of 25-year old Tiane Notice, who was stabbed to death outside her Plainville apartment on Valentines Day last year when her former boyfriend violated a restraining order.

“Certainly if her murderer had to go through that mile buffer zone, she might be here today,” she said.

Tindill said she is working with the Judicial Branch to ensure the program runs as it is intended.

“Clearly everyone has the right to go the store with out risking getting arrested. We are not interested in violating anyone’s rights. The goal is to make sure the victim is safe,” she said.

Besides unintentional “safe zone” breaches, Carbone said he anticipates problems such as dead batteries and weather patterns setting off the alarm.

“We are going to work to weed out these errors. It will be labor intensive,” he said, adding the police will need to review the alarms on a case-by-case basis.

Since the system is so new — only Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. have launched the program in the past year-and-a-half – Carbone said obstacles are unavoidable.

“We will have to determine how to decipher what is a false alarm and what is an actual threat,” he said.

Jarrett Smith, spokesman for G4S, the British-based security firm that makes the GPS equipment, said the other states using the system also are working to develop procedures to minimize false alarms. He declined to talk about specific problems with the system, referring questions to the Connecticut Judicial Branch.

Costs also have played a pivotal role in the debate of whether to launch the pilot program recommended by the legislature’s domestic violence task force.

“We have to have a way to pay for it. We cannot continue to expand programs when we should be making cuts,” said Sen. John A. Kissel of Enfield, the ranking Senate Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

The pilot program is being funded with a $140,000 federal stimulus grant, which is enough to rent the GPS equipment for one year. However, the state will be responsible for coping with the “labor intensive” administrative work to monitor the offenders, said Carbone.

“We should be doing the best with the programs we already have. I don’t want to get people’s hopes up that we can afford this,” Kissel said.

Rep. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, said one way to help recover the costs is to charge $25 a day for those required to wear the devices.

But Carbone said that would be unfair.

“You certainly don’t want victims of indigent abusers to be less protected than others. The state has to assume much of the cost,” he said.

The state currently spends around $1.9 million a year on GPS monitoring to track sex offenders and burglars. In January there were 225 offenders being monitored. The current system costs the state about $10 a day and the new system comes at a cost of $25 a day if renewed past the pilot, said Carbone.

The future of the GPS program ultimately depends on the mood of state legislators next March when funding runs out.

“Hopefully we can prove it’s money well spent,” Carbone said.