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November 7, 2010

"Ankle monitors: a high-demand accessory for minor criminals"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable and fascinating new article from today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (Hat tip to the frequent must-read website The Crime Report.)  Here are excerpts:

Electronic monitoring devices, black anklets made of rubber and plastic, are not exactly coveted, but in Allegheny County they are certainly in high demand.  Last week, about 1,200 people were wearing the monitoring units, mostly used to enforce house arrest for those convicted in Common Pleas Court of minor criminal offenses.  Another 925 people were waiting for them.

The electronic monitoring waiting list started ballooning about a year ago, about the same time the court introduced a program to expedite minor cases. "It worked overly well," said Common Pleas Judge Beth A. Lazzara, one of two judges who hear cases through the program, called the Phoenix docket.  A backlog of cases poured through, about 4,000 since January, she estimated.

"What we're getting now is a bubble," said Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, administrative judge of the court's criminal division.... "We're doing our best to expedite everyone," said Frank Scherer, manager of the county's monitoring program, part of the Adult Probation Department.  The department tries to get an anklet to a new person the same day it is returned from someone else.

But the county owns only 1,200 of the devices, which cost about $2,500 each.  At any time, more than 2,000 people are required to wear them. "With that comes manpower issues," said Mr. Scherer.  "If we were able to get equipment for all 925 people, we'd have to hire probably three dozen more probation officers and get more monitors and computer equipment."

Across Pennsylvania, electronic monitoring waiting lists are not unheard of. Westmoreland County has a waiting list of 177 people, down from more than 200 last year.  Philadelphia County had a waiting list earlier this year with 73 names on it.  The list has since been eliminated.  "We bought more monitors," said court administrator David Lawrence. "Easy." Montgomery County usually has a waiting list with five or six people on it....

Allegheny County's list is long partly because the county often leads the state in arrests for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In 2009, 5,208 people were arrested on DUI charges here, compared with 4,748 in Philadelphia County, said Catherine Tress, director of the Pennsylvania DUI Association's Western Pennsylvania office....

Allegheny County needs house arrest, said Judge Manning. The punishment is an alternative to a jail sentence, and without it, following mandatory minimum sentencing requirements would inundate the county jail.  "And there is no room without building a bigger jail facility," Judge Manning said.

The anklets Allegheny County uses are not GPS-enabled.  But they do allow the probation department to monitor the comings and goings of an offender, comparing their movement to the times they are permitted out.  The probation department enters into a computer a range of times when the offender is permitted out, such as for work, drug and alcohol treatment, church services or medical appointments.

The department places a receiver in the offender's house.  When the offender is within a certain range of it, the receiver emits a signal.  When the person is out of range, the signal stops.  Employees at a monitoring center staffed 24 hours a day watch a central screen and notify officials if the signal stops. Then, probation officers can be sent out.

High-risk offenders and pre-trial defendants -- placed on house arrest while their cases move through the court -- are typically given an anklet within a few days.  Jail inmates waiting to be released to house arrest must be given anklets within 72 hours.  But the majority of people sentenced to electronic monitoring are low-risk offenders charged with crimes such as driving under the influence, drug possession or retail theft. They wait.

Especially with tighter budgets and perhaps growing public safety concerns in the months and years to come, these stories are likely to get more common. But, as I have said before and will say again, as long as technocorrections seems to aid public safety at a lower cost than traditional incarceration, this is sure to remain a growth industry.

November 7, 2010 at 11:47 AM | Permalink

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Comments

"at a lower cost" is the key phrase in your summation. This story shows the cost is not insignificant and not necessarily worth the bang for the buck for "low-risk offenders charged with crimes such as driving under the influence, drug possession or retail theft."

The devices are expensive, but much more expensive is labor for monitoring. GPS in and of itself does not contribute to safety or effective supervision. It only generates data, and paid human beings must do something with the data to actually incur any benefit.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Nov 7, 2010 5:57:27 PM

The monitoring costs $10/day for the non-GPS ones and the state picks up the majority of that if the offender can't afford it. That's roughly $300/month/device.

Posted by: NickS - student | Nov 8, 2010 8:11:56 AM

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