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  First Case Shows Limits of Tracking Sex Offenders

By Amy Sherman
Pioneer Press [Minnesota]
Downloaded April 12, 2004

Minnesota will begin using its new high-tech system for tracking the state's worst sex offenders next week, but the technology has its limits. The first man to use it lives in such an isolated area, the device won't track him minute-by-minute, for example.

The 35-year-old man, who is expected to be released from prison Monday into the northern Minnesota community of Finland, will wear a bracelet that uses Global Positioning System information.

Although the technology is aimed at keeping a closer watch on sex offenders, it isn't perfect. Curtis John Houle may wear the bracelet as ordered, but because Lake County has little cell-phone coverage, state probation officers won't be able to track his movements throughout the day.

If Houle leaves his home, when he returns he must plug the device into a telephone line and his whereabouts will be downloaded.

"In an area where we don't have cell technology, we still have more information than we've ever had, and it's still probably quicker than we've ever had," said Bill Guelker, director of field services for the Minnesota Corrections Department.

Other Level 3 sex offenders those considered most likely to reoffend are expected to use the devices soon. In urban areas with better cellular technology, information will be downloaded about offenders as they move about the community throughout the day.

That will be the case with Alonzo Christopher Hill, 35, who will be released in South St. Paul around April 5.

"He will be tracked at all times," said Phyllis Grubb, a supervisor for Dakota County Community Corrections.

About 45 Level 3 sex offenders are released into communities each year in Minnesota.

The state's decision earlier this year to use the devices is part of mad-dash effort to protect the public from Level 3 offenders. Politicians have proposed everything from reinstating the death penalty to life sentences for certain offenders in response to the charging of convicted sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. in the disappearance of college student Dru Sjodin in November.

Under the new system, authorities won't be constantly staring at computer screens, watching offenders' every move. The system requires an offender to wear an ankle bracelet, which transmits a signal to a portable tracking device that can be attached to an offender's belt.

The devices use GPS signals and a wireless network to report offenders' movements, which are routinely downloaded into the computer system. Authorities can regularly check on offenders and are alerted if they remove the plastic devices.

Corrections officials emphasize that the devices are one more tool for probation officers, who also meet with high-risk sex offenders face to face four times a week at first. In fact, Tom Roy, director of Arrowhead Regional Corrections, which will supervise Houle, said human contact is more important than the electronic tools, which aren't perfect.

"I would hate for there to be a perception that this is a fail-safe technology, that somehow (the public) should be more reassured that they are safer," Roy said. "It's only a tool. It can be removed by the offender if he decides that it is to be removed, and they can go about their way. Once an offender is in a community, there are absolutely no absolute guarantees."

Corrections officials in the state have been trained on how to work with the GPS devices, which can be set so offenders can't go into certain zones, such as a neighborhood where a victim lives.

Roy said he doesn't think offenders will have trouble using the devices because they are similar to traditional electronic home-monitoring systems. That less advanced technology allows probation officers to determine only if an offender is at home.

"The bigger difference is on our end," Roy said. "It's certainly an added requirement that we will have to do with existing staff. After last year with layoffs, of course, all corrections departments are struggling with caseload numbers. We wish that we can bring back and adequately staff all of our efforts."

On average, offenders will use the devices for six months, state officials said earlier this year. The technology will cost the state about $175,000 to $200,000 a year and is more expensive than current monitoring devices.

RS Eden, a St. Paul company that has a contract with the state to provide electronic monitoring, is temporarily providing the devices, which are leased from Florida-based Pro Tech Monitoring. The state has opened competitive bidding for services.

TO BE RELEASED

Two sex offenders are being released into the community soon. They will be monitored with Global Positioning System devices.

Curtis John Houle, 35. Houle is expected to be released from prison Monday and will live in rural Finland in Lake County. He has a history of sexual contact with teenage and adult females. Houle wasn't known to his victims.

Alonzo Christopher Hill, 35. Hill is expected to be released from prison around April 5 and live in the 200 block of Eighth Avenue South in South St. Paul. He abducted an 18-year-old woman he didn't know and engaged in forced sexual contact. A community notification meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at South St. Paul High School.