- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 10, 2013

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.”

“The lack of criminal enforcement combined with the ease of cutting devices has made cutting GPS devices a significant problem,” the report says. It goes on to note that DYRS “often returns absconders who tamper with GPS devices to the same or similar community placements with another device, even after multiple tampering incidents.”

As recently as August, Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier issued internal guidance to officers on how to properly document cases of GPS tampering.

The attorney general’s office, which handles most youth prosecutions, was unable to say Tuesday how often such charges are brought against juveniles.

In one instance in the District last year, a DYRS ward with a history of attempting to thwart electronic monitoring — including wrapping one device with aluminum foil in an attempt to interfere with its signal — let the battery drain on his ankle bracelet the day after receiving it.

An hour later, a witness placed Kevon Austin near the scene of a fatal shooting around Gallaudet University in Northeast, and prosecutors charged him with the homicide. Another witness described hearing Mr. Austin talk about killing the man in the days before the shooting, but prosecutors ultimately dropped the charges against him with no explanation.

The devices are used by other D.C. departments to oversee offenders and those on probation or pretrial release — agencies that have seen similar issues with crimes committed by those to whom the devices were assigned.

A 19-year-old man facing charges in connection with a March shooting that injured 13 people on North Capitol Street was at the time of the incident wearing a GPS device assigned by the District’s Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency.

In an agency response to the inspector general’s report, DYRS officials defended a number of their practices — including what investigators called a “lack of around the clock coverage” by staff.

Officials said DYRS staff receive alerts by cellphone and provide “on call” coverage during nights and weekends. Officials told investigators that staff employed by the agency’s GPS unit are “dedicated employees who are willing to assist when needed, even whey they are not officially on duty.”

But in instances when a juvenile has walked away from agency supervision or has removed a monitor, staff must return to the agency’s office to assist in locating the youth because they are not provided with technology that would allow them to work remotely.

“The time that a GPS unit member expends returning to DYRS’s office may make locating absconders increasingly difficult,” the report states. “Delays in response time make it more likely that GPS batteries will die, giving an absconder time to remove the device, and in some instances, give an absconder an opportunity to commit a crime before being located.”

Among other findings, the report criticizes DYRS for providing no clear criteria outlining when a youth should be assigned a GPS device or have one removed and for leaving that decision to case managers.

Some of the staffers assign the devices simply to monitor the whereabouts of youths, while other see it as a way to modify a juvenile’s behavior, the report says.

In their response, DYRS officials write that a standardized or a one-size-fits-all approach would not work because “treatment needs and progress play a significant factor in determining when GPS is needed and can be discounted.”