Politics & Government

Home detention reduces jail crowd

Tacoma – Mary Ness is wearing a special ankle bracelet while she awaits a September court date for allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol. It’s not her first DUI arrest.

The 41-year-old nurse, who lives on Fox Island, isn’t particularly happy about being on electronic home monitoring, but it beats the alternative.

“I could be sitting in jail right now, waiting for my court date,” Ness said. “But I have a lot of stuff to do in my life.”

So, Ness got a $10,000 bond through ABC Day-n-Night Bail Bonds and Electronic Home Monitoring. She also has been paying the Tacoma firm $14.50 a day since mid-July to keep an eye on her for Pierce County District Court.

The ankle bracelet has a global positioning satellite device that, coupled with a cell phone she must carry, lets ABC track her movements. In addition, the device has a sensor that will indicate whether she drinks any alcohol, which is prohibited under the terms of her pretrial release.

“I can’t be running around at night. I can’t be going to clubs. I can’t be partying and I can’t drink,” Ness said. “But it’s definitely worth it.”

Cash-strapped county governments are using the practice, also known as “home detention,” more and more to hold down the cost and populations of their often overcrowded jails.

And the state is about to launch a major home-monitoring program for many former prison inmates. The program is aimed at “violators” – offenders who have violated terms of their release to the community after serving their sentences in prison or jail.

The Department of Corrections expects eventually to have an average of 300 to 400 former prisoners on home monitoring on any given day when its home detention program starts, probably in October.

The state hopes to save $11 million over the next two years because it will pay about $17 a day for electronic monitoring instead of an average of $67.50 a day to rent a local jail cell to house offenders.

The idea came up after legislators cut about $4 billion in state spending from the overall $70 billion, two-year state budget and more than $100 million in cuts were made to the prison system’s $1.8 billion budget.

The 2009-11 state budget assumes the Corrections Department will use home monitoring for 25 percent of its “violators” for a net savings of $11 million over those two years.

On any given day last year, the state had 1,324 violators in jail or prison, most serving a 20- to 60-day additional sentences for violating conditions of their releases. The overall prison population is about 18,500.

Some offenders were sent to the minimum security unit at the state prison in Monroe, but most went to local jails.

It’s rental costs for jail cells that the state hopes to save by paying the much lower home-monitoring costs and pocketing the difference.

Scott Blonien, a DOC assistant secretary, said the program is still a work in progress.

“We have a dollar target (for savings) to hit without negatively impacting community safety,” he said. “But we have not yet come down to any hard and fast criteria.”

Corrections officials will take into account the crimes offenders have committed, their reporting history and the nature of their most recent violations in deciding who gets to stay at home with an ankle bracelet and who will be placed back in jail, he said.

The Legislature gave the department three months to implement the home-detention program, he said.

The Corrections Department will pay the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to provide the monitoring for what eventually will be about 350 offenders a day.

WASPC is a nonprofit organization that competes with private companies that also provide electronic monitoring services to local courts.

LAWS HELP SPUR USE

Pierce County District Court Judge Jim Heller, who’s been on the bench for more than 20 years, said home detention took off after the Legislature overhauled drunken-driving laws in the late 1990s.

Home monitoring is used for other cases, but its main use remains DUI offenses.

Since 1998, drunken drivers have been sentenced to a combination of jail incarceration and home detention, particularly if they are convicted of a second or third time, or if the blood-alcohol content is double the 0.08 threshold.

Judges have some discretion in sentencing, but state law mandates many terms. For instance, a third DUI conviction carries a sentence of 120 days in jail and 150 days on electronic monitoring, for a total of 270 days.

In cases where he can adjust sentences, Heller said he looks at a defendant’s record to see whether he or she is a candidate for electronic monitoring.

“It depends on what they have done in the past and how often they have reoffended,” he said. “If this person is working, we want to keep them working and the electronic home monitoring clearly fits that purpose.”

Home detention is not for everyone. Some offenders prefer jail time, he said.

“I’ve had prisoners who say it’s harder than jail,” Heller said. “Sometimes, they get random calls at night to check on them. And they say they’d rather just do their sentence in jail.

“They don’t earn ‘good time’ on electronic monitoring, either. So they might want to spend 20 days in jail instead of 30 days on home monitoring.”

Heller said he’d much rather put a defendant on home monitoring for a few months than sentence him to jail custody, especially since there’s a good chance he’ll be released right away from an overcrowded jail.

“To keep the jail population down, they will let people out early,” Heller said. “He might be sentenced to 180 days but will get out after one day.”

Fewer than half of a jail’s inmates are serving a sentence, he said. About 60 percent are defendants awaiting trial on felony charges, Heller said.

HOW IT WORKS

If a judge approves home monitoring, it’s up to the defendant to make the arrangements.

Pierce County District Court gives out the names of two such firms now, but is setting standards for home-detention companies and plans to add more private firms to the list, said Chuck Ramey, district court administrator.

ABC Day-n-Night Bail Bonds/EHM is monitoring 17 people for various regional courts, including those in Fife and Puyallup, said owner Connie Taylor.

Generally, a family member contacts her company to make arrangements, she said.

“We pick them up and put the (ankle) bracelet on them right there at the jail, take photos of them and get them on their way,” Taylor said. “And we let them know the rules.”

The company charges a $75 setup fee and $14.50 a day, regardless of the kind of monitoring required. That includes monitoring for alcohol use. The technology she uses shows real-time location of defendants. Other devices show only where a person has been, after the information is downloaded the next day.

Steve Hopkins, owner of Stay Home Monitoring Inc. in Montesano, has been in operation for a dozen years, has 15 employees and is overseeing 175 people today.

Terms and duration of monitoring are set by the courts, he said.

“It could be anywhere from one day to a couple years,” Hopkins said. “Normally, it’s for about 55 to 60 days.”

Restrictions are tailored to each defendant, Taylor said. Defendants can leave their homes, but must remain within certain boundaries or on approved routes to and from work, or to and from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Hopkins offers services that range from $14 to $20 a day, depending on whether he is tracking only when a defendant leaves his home, whether he is testing for alcohol use, actively following a defendant’s movements with GPS tracking devices or some combination thereof.

If a defendant deviates, a computer at ABC sends an alert and Taylor contacts the person for an explanation.

“If they are not home when they should be, if they show positive for alcohol, we report the violations to the courts,” she said.

A serious violation prompts an arrest warrant, Heller said.

Today, hundreds of offenders and defendants would be serving time in county jails or state prisons if not for the home-detention programs throughout the state.

“It’s one of those alternatives to incarceration that in many situations makes very good sense,” Heller said. “It makes good sense to the taxpayers. It gives us the structure that we want. It works for the individual in maintaining their lives and staying with their families. A lot of times, it really fits the bill.”

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