September 12, 2005 in City

Monitors valuable but imperfect

By The Spokesman-Review
 

It’s said that iron bars can’t make a prison. But they come a lot closer than electronic monitoring.

Just ask Spokane County Superior Court Judge Linda Tompkins.

In May, she approved an electronically monitored furlough for a felon and discovered, to her chagrin, that all he had to do was throw away the monitor when he decided to abscond.

Like many others, Tompkins had thought electronic tracking devices would be difficult to defeat. However, even in an age when James Bond gadgets are reality, it’s hard to keep the bad guys under control.

“These are excellent tools for law enforcement, but they’re not virtual jails,” Pete Black, co-owner of Second Watch Monitoring in Spokane, said of the satellite-based tracking system his company uses.

Second Watch’s Global Positioning System actually is much more sophisticated than the car-mounted radar screen that displayed Goldfinger as a big flashing blip.

Other kinds of monitors can tell authorities when someone has been drinking alcohol, and monitors to detect the presence of street drugs are being developed.

Suspects typically are required to pay for their monitoring, although city and county officials increasingly view the technology as an attractive alternative to expanding the county’s overcrowded jail – even if taxpayers must pay to monitor indigent defendants.

In some cases, though, monitoring can’t adequately ensure public safety.

“You’re trusting that the individual is going to follow the program and obey the rules,” said Brett Sobosky, custody manager at the county’s Geiger Corrections Center.

But people accused or convicted of violent crimes are poor candidates for so much trust, according to Sobosky, who oversees Geiger’s monitoring program for adult offenders. Low- to medium-level suspects with at least some support from family and friends are the preferred candidates.

Tompkins learned that the hard way when she authorized a one-week furlough for Jeremy Allen Arnold in May so he could get married. At the time, Arnold was awaiting sentencing on two counts of second-degree robbery, three counts of intimidating witnesses and five counts of second-degree burglary.

Second Watch, a sister company of Bail Bond Information Center, was assigned to track Arnold with a Global Positioning System monitor that reported his location every few seconds.

Arnold was released on May 6 and absconded on May 12, a day before he was supposed to have returned to court for sentencing.

Tompkins said she had only a “conceptual” knowledge of electronic monitoring, “not the nuts and bolts of how it can be evaded.” Like many others, she supposed the monitoring devices would at least be difficult to remove – perhaps being attached with a metal bracelet. Not so.

“All he had to do is take this box and throw it in the garbage,” Black said, pointing to a fist-sized “personal tracking unit” used to record and transmit the location of a person being monitored. “That’s all he did.”

The tracking unit, which can be clipped to a belt or worn in a fanny pack, will send an alarm within six seconds of being out of range of a smaller transmitter strapped to the person’s ankle. But anyone with a car and a little luck can be far away before police or probation officers arrive.

Especially, as in Arnold’s case, if police aren’t called for almost 15 minutes while monitoring personnel wait to make sure they’re not dealing with a false alarm.

Black, Sobosky and others agree that all the various kinds of electronic monitoring are designed more to give people a chance to prove themselves than to guarantee good behavior.

Electronic monitoring has been used successfully in several high-profile Superior Court felony cases, and it is used routinely to ease state prison inmates back into society as they near the end of their sentences.

The key is to make sure people being monitored have a strong incentive to comply, according to Fran Ostrom, director of the Iverson Center in Spokane, which provides GPS monitoring and urine testing for state prison inmates.

“Our guys are all felons, but they have a lot to lose,” Ostrom said. “If they screw up, they go back to prison.”

But young male felons such as Jeremy Arnold don’t think about the extra time they might have to serve at the end of a long sentence they haven’t started, she said.

“People who have nothing to lose need to be incarcerated,” Ostrom said.

Spokane County Superior Court judges have taken steps to learn more about electronic monitoring since Arnold’s escape. Judges in District Court – where electronic monitoring is used much more widely – are further ahead on the learning curve.

At least a couple of District Court jurists have first-hand knowledge. Judge Vance Peterson and court Commissioner Randy Brandt strapped an alcohol-monitoring device called SCRAM – Secured Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring – onto their ankles for about 12 hours to see how well it worked and how it felt.

“Within five minutes of taking a sip of beer, the monitor was activated, and that was just incredible to me,” Peterson said, estimating he had drunk only a few ounces of beer. “It was just ‘bam.’ ”

About the size of a small teacup, the ankle-mounted device is “irritating but not uncomfortable to the point of being painful,” Brandt said.

“I wouldn’t want to wear one every day,” Peterson said. “But, if the alternative was to be sitting up at the Crowbar Hotel, I think I’d be just as happy to be sitting at home and watching the Mariners on my own TV.”

Inmates approved for electronic monitoring tend to prefer Second Watch because it charges less than Geiger.

Monitoring services that cost $14 a day through Second Watch, for example, cost $25.90 from Geiger. Second Watch has about 100 clients while Geiger serves about 60.

But Geiger has a well-developed program that screens monitoring candidates for suitability and assigns a staff member for every 20 people being monitored. People who set off an alarm, even inadvertently, can expect an immediate phone call and maybe a follow-up visit by a probation officer with arrest power.

Black, Sobosky and Peterson say most suspects on electronic monitoring are low- to medium-risk and most respond well. Sobosky estimates Geiger’s success rate at 80 percent.

Peterson said reducing costs and shifting the burden to suspects is essential because jails are full all over the state and taxpayers can’t afford to build and operate more jail cells.

Figuring it costs $25.20 a day to incarcerate someone at Geiger Corrections Center and about $100 a day at the Spokane County Jail, Second Watch calculates it saved Spokane County $296,982 to almost $1.2 million in the first six months of this year. For the city of Spokane, the saving is estimated at $198,198 to $786,500.


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