Teen thugs in D.C. run wild — even while wearing GPS ankle bracelets

Tyran McElrath was already in trouble with the law when he sneaked through a rear window of a Northwest D.C. home last year in the course of a burglary.

Inside, the 18-year-old encountered an 81-year-old woman who was legally blind. He savagely beat her and ransacked her house.

The crime is detailed in court records that also explain how officials quickly caught the youth: He was wearing a GPS tracking device assigned to him by the city’s juvenile justice agency.

Now a report by the District’s office of the inspector general is taking issue with the use of the monitoring devices by the city’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, in whose custody McElrath was before the crime and his subsequent guilty plea.

Issued this month, the report says the department is “not optimizing its use of GPS devices” and that the ankle bracelets are easy for youths to remove and difficult for staff to monitor remotely.

The 71-page report addresses a number of problems related to youths who abscond from the agency’s custody even for short periods — including the fear they could commit crimes despite being outfitted with the devices.

Noting that “the flimsy straps that hold the device to a youth’s leg are easily removed with a knife or scissors,” the report recommends DYRS look into whether a different type of monitoring device could be less easily discarded.

But agency officials disagreed with the recommendation, stating that the devices are “not a behavior modification tool and so purchasing new GPS devices would have no impact on a youth’s behavior.”

DYRS officials did not respond Tuesday to questions submitted through an agency spokesman.

Other jurisdictions have faced similar issues with tampering of GPS monitoring devices.

New York lawmakers sought to make tampering with the devices a felony this year after a man on pretrial release raped a child and killed a woman. California lawmakers this year also considered stiffening penalties after corrections officials noted a jump in the number of parole violators who cut off electronic monitoring bracelets.

The District’s juvenile justice agency has used the devices since 2010 to monitor some youths committed to its custody. The agency in fiscal 2012 had responsibility for 1,152 juveniles. The report said that, as of Sept. 19, 154 of them were assigned GPS devices.

DYRS assigns GPS devices to juveniles placed in the community as well as to those who are awaiting placement within the system and who are receiving treatment at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington.

Tampering with a device is a criminal offense in the District punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The report notes that DYRS is informing juveniles of these consequences but states that the agency is “not regularly holding youths criminally or financially responsible for destroying the devices.”

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