Ankle bracelet breakdown: Mass. losing track of criminals

Contributors: Audrey Adam, Julia Aparicio, Kelsey Bruun, Angel Feliciano, Alexis Herrera, Elijah Kaplan, Cameron Machell, Jessica McWeeney

BOSTON (FOX UNDERCOVER) -- A convicted criminal, who does not want to be identified because he is on probation, was in his home, exactly where he was supposed to be. But within hours police were knocking on his door, taking him into custody because his GPS electronic monitoring ankle bracelet malfunctioned.

It all started around 9 p.m., when he got a call from the state's Electronic Monitoring Program, which is run by the Probation Department.

“They said, 'We're not getting a signal. Can you go outside to get a signal?'” he explained. After walking around outside and attempting to charge the device, he said the Electronic Monitoring Program determined the bracelet was broken. He was instructed to go to the probation office the next morning and get a new one.

But an hour later the police came to his house with a warrant. They arrested him and he spent the night in jail. The next morning, he received a new ankle bracelet.

This is not an isolated incident. A FOX25 and Northeastern University School of Journalism investigation uncovered growing concerns from people inside and outside state government about the reliability of the electronic monitoring equipment used in Massachusetts.

The result is two-fold. Crime victims and the public are left with a false sense of security, while some probationers and parolees are being unfairly arrested.

In case after case, the accused or convicted criminals are not doing anything wrong, but the connection on their ankle bracelet is lost. The Probation Department often then makes the decision to issue a warrant for their arrest, even in cases where they have spoken to the individual about the signal problem.

The Probation Department monitors approximately 3,000 accused and convicted criminals. Data obtained from the state reveals the number of arrest warrants issued for people wearing ankle bracelets has jumped dramatically over the last two years.

The Probation Department issued 136 arrest warrants in March 2013. That number peaked in October 2014 with 626 arrest warrants. The department attributes this increase to the growing number of people wearing ankle bracelets.

However, critics point to the numbers as evidence that the equipment is malfunctioning at an alarming rate, and believe people on the devices are having their rights violated if the Probation Department is issuing arrest warrants without really knowing someone is violating the terms of their probation.

Attorney Gregory Oberhauser of Lowell represents accused child rapist Rodger Rouleau. Rouleau recently spent two nights in jail after police showed up at his home with a warrant for his arrest. The Electronic Monitoring Program had lost the signal to his ankle bracelet, even though Rouleau was at home.

“When we start seeing the machine making mistakes or not being able to be controlled by human beings,” Oberhauser said. “And the Probation Department is making determinations without being able to use common sense, then we've got a problem.”

Rouleau's case prompted Lowell Superior Court Judge Heidi Brieger to take a drastic step during a hearing at Lowell Superior Court on March 20. The judge is now refusing to force accused or convicted criminals to wear ankle bracelets.

“I do not intend to place people on electronic monitoring until this is worked out,” Brieger explained.

Danny Pires, a program manager for the Electronic Monitoring Program, spoke at the hearing and attributed some of the problems to poor cell service . Pires said that the majority of devices rely on T-Mobile and AT&T service, but noted that the vendor will be coming out with a Verizon ankle bracelet in July. But Judge Brieger was not satisfied with that explanation.

“I will be conservative to estimate that I have had at least five or six people who are on probation who have not violated the terms of their probation who have been arrested, put in jail and stayed in jail until they were transported to this courtroom only then to be released despite the fact that they had not violated the terms of their probation,” said Brieger.

Massachusetts contracted with 3M Electronic Monitoring in 2012. Other states have reported issues with 3M, including California and Arkansas.

Arkansas currently uses both 3M and another monitoring system. “Due to the rural nature of Arkansas, the 3M devices just didn't operate efficiently in some of the outlying areas,” said Dina Tyler, spokeswoman of the Department of Community Corrections in Arkansas.

3M declined to answer specific questions, but issued a statement: “We are committed to public safety and work hand-in-hand with our corrections customers.”

Monitoring systems are overall an effective method for monitoring probationers and parolees. An extensive study conducted by the Office of Research and Evaluation at the National Institute of Justice in 2012 found that GPS bracelets lead to lower recidivism.

A Probation Department spokeswoman also defended electronic monitoring.

“The use of the GPS bracelet is one of the most technologically-advanced and cost-effective approaches to monitoring offenders and their movement in the community,” spokeswoman Coria Holland said. “We are confident in the efficacy of the equipment and the program.”

Probation officials declined requests to answer questions on camera, so FOX25 spoke with Governor Charlie Baker.

“Well we'll certainly take a look at that. I would actually be interested in making sure we speak with the judge,” Baker said.

The governor said the judiciary should also be looking into this since the court system oversees probation. A court spokesperson said Judge Brieger's concerns are now part of ongoing discussions.

“Obviously the bracelets don't serve the purpose if they don't work,” Baker said.

This investigation was reported on for a seminar in investigative reporting at Northeastern University. It was overseen by journalism professor Mike Beaudet, investigative reporter at WFXT-TV FOX25 News.