4 Investigates: The ankle monitor’s Albuquerque origin story

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Jack Love was a lawyer, a prosecutor, a judge — and a fan of Spiderman.

In the comic strip that ran in newspapers on Tuesday, August 9, 1977, the villain Kingpin slaps an “electronic radar device” on Spiderman’s wrist, letting him track the friendly neighborhood superhero’s location. Love filed the idea away.

A few years later, University of Albuquerque criminologist Walter Niederberger got a phone call from the judge.

“He had read that and thought I was a forward-looking criminologist and would I be interested in doing the research if he could find funding,” said Niederberger.

He was interested, and as Love’s idea moved from comic-strip fancy to reality, so did a research grant from the National Institute of Justice.

By early 1983, Judge Love had begun piloting the technology with people convicted of nonviolent, low-risk crimes. Court personnel attached transmitters to their ankles, which were effectively used as a form of house arrest. Receivers were connected to land-based telephone lines and each morning, the judge could read over a report that showed potential violations.

The New York Times took notice with a short article in 1984, and while jurisdictions in Florida would soon run with the idea, Albuquerque was more circumspect about the idea.

“There ought to be a way to hold people accountable without people going to jail that didn’t need to be there,” explained Niederberger, now in his late eighties and retired from an active career that included time pondering everything from police training to juvenile sentencing.

From a rehabilitation standpoint, Niederberger said, the idea held promise for people who seemed as likely to have a bad experience in jail as a positive one. But many people looking at the experiment had questions: “I think there was a concern it would be misused.”

Even casual fans of Spiderman will tingle at the echoes of great power and great responsibility in Walter Niederberger’s recollection.

Today, of course, ankle monitors are almost omnipresent. They not only stand in for sentencing, but they are also used as a tool for pretrial detention.

“It’s a situation where really we’re trying to verify that someone is adhering to conditions of release,” says Judge Brett Loveless, the presiding criminal judge in Bernalillo County’s Second Judicial District Court.

When judges consider whether to hold someone in jail before trial, he explains, they aren’t weighing a jail-or-ankle-monitor scenario. The vast majority of criminal defendants are released without electronic monitoring. When Judge Loveless sat down with KOB 4 for an interview last month, he said that out of the 800-1,000 cases awaiting trial, roughly 130 of them had defendants being monitored by GPS.

Absent an eyewitness, the devices are sometimes the only way the court can tell if a defendant is obeying the rules set out for them by a judge as they wait for their day in court.

Curfews, the judge says, are a good example of an ankle monitor’s usefulness. They can place a defendant where they’re supposed to be at a particular time. The same principle applies to an exclusion zone like a park or an inclusion zone like a home.

“We can order that. But the only way to verify it without a witness saying they actually violated it, is to have GPS tracking, ” Judge Loveless says

GPS data, however, is not an invisible fence.
“I think that there’s a fair amount of expectation as to what technology can do, when in reality, it doesn’t actually accomplish what people think it does,” says Judge Loveless. It’s a pattern he saw evolving when he was a prosecutor, and it’s an issue current prosecutors say hasn’t waned much.

“I think there is this romanticized vision of maybe what they’ve seen in the movies,” says 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez. “Where there’s an immediate dispatch to a police officer who’s ready to get to the scene of whatever violation has occurred within minutes. And that’s just simply not the case, not only from a technological standpoint, but also from a staffing standpoint.”
Last year, 4 Investigates revealed Bernalillo County defendants on GPS monitoring weren’t being watched on weekends or even outside of normal business hours. The Administrative Office of the Courts, and then the New Mexico Legislature, responded with funding to achieve round-the-clock monitoring in Bernalillo County and elsewhere around the state. But beyond people working in pretrial monitoring jobs, a successful system depends on having police officers and sheriff’s deputies to be free to respond to an alert.

“If the last link in this chain where we rely on technology to give us some sense that a violent, dangerous person has violated their conditions of release if you don’t have a police officer to call and go do something about it, what have you really done?” asks Torrez.

Walter Niederberger worries the criminal justice system has forgotten the ankle monitor’s origin story.

“It became something that Judge Love was trying to avoid,” he says. “And that is: They widened the net of people who they would use it on instead of narrowing the use to a group of people.”

That old line about power and responsibility…

“It’s being used to do all sorts of things that I don’t think [Judge Jack Love] intended it for,” he says.

…seems especially poignant 45 years after the judge snapped open his morning newspaper to catch the latest adventures of Spiderman.