Track domestic abusers with GPS devices: Editorial

Letizia Zindell, who went by "Lisa," called off her wedding the day before she was to walk down the aisle, after her fiance exploded at her in front of everybody at their rehearsal dinner.

Fearful of his escalating rage and familiar with the system -- the 30-year-old was a caseworker for child welfare, with master's degrees in criminal justice and social work -- she did everything right.

She left their Toms River home that she owned and hid out at a friend's place. She got a restraining order, and told police when he violated it.

But her former fiance simply ignored the order. Just one day after getting out of jail for repeatedly violating it, he strangled her to death, then hanged himself.

It happens far too often. To an unhinged abuser, a restraining order is nothing more than a piece of paper. Which is why two lawmakers have proposed "Lisa’s Law." It would require the state Attorney General's Office and Parole Board to establish a GPS monitoring program to track abusers who repeatedly violate restraining orders, and alert their victims if they're close by.

Lawmakers unanimously approved the bill last year. But Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed it, changing it from a pilot program to a mere study. The result, released last week by Acting Attorney General John Hoffman, includes little discussion of the potential benefits, and a lot of hand-wringing over all the ways this might not work.

By contrast, a more substantive study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012 found promising success. When GPS monitoring is used, offenders almost never try to contact a victim, it reported.

Nobody would argue that this is fool-proof. Like cell phones, GPS devices aren't always reliable. They may lose contact or be tampered with. But we already use them to monitor high-risk sex offenders. Why not predatory domestic abusers, too?
To an unhinged abuser, a restraining order is nothing more than a piece of paper.

Lisa's Law gives judges the discretion to decide which offenders need tracking, based on factors like repeat violations or the viciousness of the attack. This helps reduce the cost of the program, as does the requirement that offenders pay for their monitoring.

Hoffman estimates a pilot program could cost $2.4 million. His report frets that abusers may use the GPS system to harass a victim, coming just close enough to trigger an alert; that authorities may be too slow to respond; or that tracking may invade a victim's privacy or give her a false sense of security.

Maybe so. But victims don't have to participate, and aren't these lesser problems than the alternative, in which a woman gets easily ambushed by her abuser?

The AG's report also argues that if a bail reform measure is approved, judges will be able to detain the most dangerous defendants before trial. This could keep some attackers away from their victims; true.

But it's still no substitute for GPS monitoring. Detention is intended for severe and rare cases, like drug dealers who might go after witnesses, not every abuser who repeatedly violates a restraining order. Zindell's former fiance sent her 24 emails in one day and a bouquet of flowers at work -- harassment that frightened her and got him forced into a mental hospital for a few days, but not enough to keep him in jail.

Certainly, GPS monitoring should be just one piece of a larger strategy to fight domestic violence. Lawmakers must hold hearings to identify what remedies are most effective.

Victims need lawyers in restraining order hearings and contested custody cases, so they don't have to face their abusers alone. They need more supervised visitation centers, so abusers can't threaten them when they see their kids. And we need to address the huge unmet need for counseling.

But in the meantime, the least we can do is stop leaving women to the mercy of their abusers.

Original article