Something that lawmakers already thought was a crime in the District may soon be: tampering with a GPS monitoring device.
For more than two years, high-risk offenders who cut off or disabled monitoring devices could not always be charged with doing so.
The Washington Post exposed the loophole last year in a series of stories about leniency, lax oversight and little rehabilitation for the city’s most violent repeat offenders.
The breakdown in GPS monitoring was rooted in the District’s unique local-federal split in its criminal justice system. The federal agency that watches offenders — the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, or CSOSA — had been using GPS for a decade as a sanction for offenders who violate terms of parole or probation. But cutting off the devices it installed was never clearly made a crime.
The problem became obvious to CSOSA and federal prosecutors in 2014, when an appeals court sided with a convicted robber who was on parole, overturning his conviction for removing a CSOSA-ordered GPS device.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and members of the D.C. Council, which have no authority over supervision of offenders in the city, said they had been unaware of the problem until they read the Post series.
Bowser (D) introduced an emergency bill in September to make tampering with any GPS device in the city a misdemeanor — no matter who installed it — punishable by up to six months in jail. Last month, the council backed the measure unanimously.
At a bill signing ceremony Wednesday, Bowser said that the roughly 1,700 offenders whom CSOSA monitors electronically each year need to “earn” second chances to remain in the community by strictly complying with terms of their release.
“What it means to be out on GPS is that you otherwise would be in jail in most cases,” Bowser said, “and in exchange for being able to come back to the community earlier, you have to comply . . . and will be held accountable.”
Channing D. Phillips, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said the bill “restores” the city’s ability to use GPS monitoring as a deterrent to criminal behavior and as an alternative to incarceration.
The new penalty for tampering will take effect after a month-long congressional review, but the law could also face a court challenge.
The city’s federally funded public defender service, as well as the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, have both blasted Bowser’s bill as unconstitutional.
They say it will create a system in which CSOSA, an independent, executive-branch agency — and one without law enforcement powers — will decide the intrusive condition of electronic monitoring with no due-process protections.
Bowser said the city was undeterred by the prospect of legal challenges.
“We’ll see them in court,” the mayor said of critics. She also referenced the city’s judges on the D.C. Superior Court, who are appointed by the president, saying they too need to help administer justice when it comes to strict supervision of offenders.
“We expect the judges to render penalties as it relates to the tampering of these devices,” Bowser said.
In pushing for the new law, the mayor had specifically cited a rape case The Post detailed last year.
In that 2015 case, Antwon Pitt, a violent felon with a long record of sexual misconduct while in prison, was found at a downtown D.C. library with a disabled GPS monitoring device and a substance that appeared to be synthetic marijuana. But a judge allowed Pitt to remain free, and Pitt raped and beat a college professor in her Hill East home days later.
Separately, The Post reported in its series that CSOSA acknowledged losing track of offenders it classifies as high-risk about 150 times last year. The agency also does not automatically share details about its offenders’ absences with D.C. police, as many similar state or local agencies do with police in their jurisdictions, criminal justice experts say.
Another gap in the District’s GPS monitoring program has come under intense scrutiny after Tricia McCauley, a local actress and yoga instructor, was found killed shortly after Christmas.
Adrian Johnson, 29, charged in McCauley’s killing, had been released on a theft charge pending trial and ordered to submit to GPS monitoring. But Johnson did not come to an appointment days before the killing to have the bracelet attached.
Court records do not make clear whether an independent agency within CSOSA — the Pretrial Services Agency — reported to a judge that Johnson had failed to show up.
Bowser stressed that the bill creating new penalties for tampering had been written before McCauley and was unrelated to the “very significant” gap regarding offenders who simply never get the required devices.
The mayor said the city wants to work with CSOSA and PSA to create a plan for how offenders can be fitted with GPS devices at the D.C. Jail before they are released.
Nancy Ware, director of CSOSA, defended her agency and the work she said she has done to improve coordination with D.C. police.
“Any system, in any state in the United States, we all have things that we work on together, and the District is no different,” Ware told reporters after the bill signing Wednesday.
She pointed to a drop in violent crime and homicides in the District from 2015 to 2016 as evidence the system is working, even as homicides remain up nearly 30 percent from the previous five years.
“We’re doing pretty well in the District of Columbia,” Ware said. “2015 was an anomaly and 2016 is definitely an improvement, and that is because we are all working together well.”
Bowser framed it differently. She said she would like to see more local control of the city’s criminal justice system, and would talk with the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump to try to improve coordination between local and federal law enforcement agencies in the District.
“Certainly, we regard public safety for Washington, D.C., as a local responsibility and we look for ways for more local influence,” Bowser said. “We will, in our discussions with the new administration make sure they know what their responsibilities are and make a better connection between how local residents feel and how the federal agencies respond.”