SUNDAY, DEC. 1, 2013

Rep. Matt Shea: Electronic home monitoring needs supervision

The entire nation was shocked and saddened in 2009 when Maurice Clemmons, a career criminal, walked into a Pierce County coffee shop and gunned down four Lakewood police officers. But what made the story especially tragic was that, by any objective standard, Clemmons had no business on the street in the first place.

Three days earlier, Clemmons had posted bail of $190,000 on a variety of violent crime charges. To ensure he showed up for his trial and the bond was repaid, his bail bondsman – Jail Sucks Bail Bonds, Inc. – ordered Clemmons to wear an ankle bracelet that would alert authorities if he attempted to flee.

Almost immediately, Clemmons cut the device off, but evidently no one in law enforcement was ever notified. Several Tacoma police officers, in fact, reported spotting him several times during that span, including just a few hours prior to the shooting. But not knowing Clemmons was on the run, they had no grounds to detain him.

Unfortunately, Clemmons’ story is far less an anomaly than most people would ever believe. It turns out electronic home monitoring systems are fraught with problems that include technical glitches, untrained and incompetent monitors, and, allegedly, corruption and bribery.

Consequently, it’s time Washington took a good, hard look at electronic home monitoring and adopted some common-sense standards to ensure we’re actually watching the people who are supposedly under constant surveillance.

Home detention has been a sentencing option for decades, but until fairly recently it was only offered to low-risk offenders because their compliance was based essentially on the honor system. More recently, though, improvements to the same GPS technology used in your car have led to ankle bracelets that can show a defendant’s location in real time.

If a monitored client ventures too far from where he or she is supposed to be, the system can trigger an alarm at a central monitoring site as far away as Colorado. The monitor should then notify local law enforcement that a potentially dangerous offender is on the loose.

At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. In a growing number of jurisdictions, however, the call doesn’t go directly to the police or sheriff; it goes to a private company – possibly even a bail bondsman – who may or may not have any incentive to pass along the warning in a timely fashion.

According to a new study by the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation, there are few – if any – guidelines for cities and counties using home-monitoring systems. Sometimes the alert goes to trained officers; other times it goes to jail staff or to probation officers. Often, alerts go to private vendors and never reach law enforcement at all.

A former Whatcom County deputy claims to have uncovered an organized conspiracy in that community by which seasoned criminals were able to “buy time off the clock.” They would bribe bail bond companies to look the other way when they removed their ankle bracelets and exited their presumed confinement. Using subpoenaed records, the deputy identified literally hundreds of examples where the local company knew a prisoner was on the move but never notified local law enforcement.

Electronic home monitoring can be a cost-effective alternative to incarcerating low-risk inmates in expensive, taxpayer-supported county jails. But for the system to work, the people being monitored actually have to be monitored. When offenders violate the terms of their agreement, law enforcement needs to be alerted promptly.

I’m in the process now of drafting legislation that would establish uniform standards for electronic home monitoring administration in Washington. The bill, which I intend to introduce during the 2014 legislative session, would also create proper safeguards and accountability practices.

I expect such a measure would receive broad, bipartisan support because public safety isn’t a question of politics. It’s a fundamental priority and responsibility of government.

It’s time Washingtonians stopped living with a false sense of security and started keeping closer tabs on the bad guys. Our families and our communities deserve nothing less.

Rep. Matt Shea (R-Spokane Valley) represents Washington’s 4th Legislative District.

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