The Reagan Tokes Act: Does GPS Electronic Monitoring of Parolees Give the Public a False Sense of Security?

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It’s the kind of crime that stabs you right in your gut and stays there. A beautiful, vivacious OSU student is attacked, raped and murdered as she leaves her part-time job in Columbus, near campus. Her attacker is subsequently caught and tried for murder, requiring her devastated parents and sister to sit through and even testify at a heart-rending trial. Yes, he’s convicted and sentenced to life in prison. But sadly, that’s not the end to this story, as the family of Reagan Tokes sadly discovered.

The worst part of this story is that this monster was actually wearing an “ankle bracelet” GPS tracking monitor during the time of the offense – on early release from a past rape conviction of a young, pregnant woman. Despite being housed in a “re-entry” program for ex-offenders, his whereabouts were not being monitored by either the GPS provider or the housing center in real-time. Most of us naively believe that if someone on home incarceration wanders outside of designated areas, an alarm must alert authorities to the fact that the wearer is not where they are supposed to be. The Tokes family found out that’s a myth, something the perpetrator surely already knew.

Not only that, he had 52 infractions of misconduct involving violent behavior while he was in prison, including possessing contraband, refusing to obey orders, fighting, and creating disturbances. His behavior was so egregious that he was moved to new prisons on several occasions. By the time he was released, he had served his sentence in five different prisons. So even though he had shown no remorse during the 5 1/2 years he was in prison for abducting and raping a pregnant woman in 2010, he was released on parole, with the ankle bracelet, in November 2016. And the murder of Reagan Tokes was not the only crime he committed during the approximate 3 months he was on parole: he violated his parole conditions many times, including committing six robberies before murdering Reagan.

Reagan’s parents have been working diligently to get two laws passed by the Ohio legislature to address the failures that allowed a known violent felon who posed a danger to society to freely roam the streets looking for victims. In 2018, the Reagan Tokes Act was introduced in the Ohio House and Senate. Part of the act was signed into law in December 2018. It allows judges to sentence class 1 and 2 felons to a range of years in prison, with the maximum amount of time being 50% longer than the minimum. If the parole board finds that the felon engaged in significant negative behavior while serving his term, he would be imprisoned for a longer period. [It also provides a means for reducing the sentence of an offender whose exceptional conduct or adjustment to incarceration is reviewed and approved by the sentencing court.]

In April 2019, the other section of the Reagan Tokes Act regarding real-time GPS monitoring of criminals under post-release control was re-introduced in the Ohio legislature. It further proposes to reduce the caseload burdens on parole officers so that they can better monitor parolees convicted of violent offenses and calls for the creation of a re-entry program for violent and sexual predators, who are often rejected by other programs and halfway houses.

In response to the introduction of the Act in the state legislature, on January 7, 2020, Governor DeWine formed a panel to review how the state monitors parolees. Currently, the vast majority of parolees who are on electronic monitoring were not convicted of a sexual or violent offense, which appears to indicate that the majority of these devices are worn by parolees who pose little danger of aggression towards the public. Based on the review thus far, the panel suggests that GPS monitoring should be expanded, but only towards specific types of parolees, those likely to commit new violent offenses, instead of being widely imposed. The panel is scheduled to hold its first public testimony in mid-January.

The constitutionality of the first part of the Act, allowing the state parole board to extend prison sentences in serious felony cases for bad conduct in prison, has been challenged by Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Thomas Heekin. He contends that the Act deprives an offender of due process and violates the separation of powers doctrine by taking the power to increase a sentence away from the judges, who, he believes, have the experience to use the necessary judicial discretion without any moral or retributive decisions. In his opinion, if the parole board, which is part of the executive branch of government, is able to make decisions keeping serious offenders in prison for longer periods of time without judicial interference, the board would be left with unregulated discretion to regard minor infractions as justification for increasing an offender’s sentence. Judge’s Heekin’s ruling will likely be appealed and could be ultimately heard in the Ohio Supreme Court.

Despite Judge Heekin’s concerns about giving power to the parole board to increase prison time for offenders who have shown no remorse or who have continued to exhibit violent behavior while incarcerated, Reagan’s murderer was duly released from prison. The parole board had no authority to keep him locked up any longer. No judge reviewed his 52 infractions while serving his sentence, or the fact that he served his time in five different prisons because his behavior was so bad. Perhaps the parole board had the information about his history in prison — they had no power to bring the matter before a judge. It would appear that if he had been sentenced to a range of years, with the prospect of incarceration for several more years for bad behavior, he could have learned to control himself within the prison society and then on the outside.

It should not be an insurmountable burden to establish new procedures for determining which parolees should be on GPS monitoring, restricting it to serious felons who pose a significant risk to the general public. It should not be insurmountable to appropriate funds to provide for “real-time” monitoring of felons wearing those devices. It’s a necessary expense to protect the lives and well-being of us all, especially those who perpetrators find to be vulnerable, like Reagan Tokes. Hopefully, our legislators, judges, and Gov. DeWine won’t let us down with this.