Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Waco considers GPS to relieve jail overcrowding

Another county struggling with jail overcrowding - McLennan (Waco is the county seat) - wants to find alternatives to incarceration instead of building a new jail, reports the Waco Tribune Herald ("County officials consider a technological solution to jail overcrowding" Sept. 26). Reporter Tommy Witherspoon describes the new mindset judges must adopt thanks to scarce incarceration resources:

McLennan County’s burgeoning jail population often forces judges to conduct a form of mental gymnastics when deciding what punishment best suits a defendant.

Recently, 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother performed a similar exercise when considering the fate of a defendant who tested positive for cocaine and marijuana while awaiting sentencing.

“I didn’t think I could just let this guy go unscathed,” Strother said. “But I thought, ‘Do I really want to give him upfront jail time with the jail population the way it is?’ My answer was, ‘Yes, I do, because he deserves it.’ But I am going through that mental process every time because it just puts another burden on the system.”

County officials have been dealing with increases in jail inmates for some time, with the population at the McLennan County Jail on State Highway 6 reaching an all-time high of 1,090 inmates in recent weeks. That was 140 over capacity.

On Monday morning, there were 920 inmates in the Highway 6 jail and 87 inmates at the downtown jail on Columbus Avenue. The county leases the downtown jail to the private detention company, CiviGenics, but relies on it as an emergency overflow unit.

To help stave off another major construction project, which might be inevitable anyway, McLennan County officials are considering the use of ankle monitors for low-risk inmates to free up space in the county jail.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Ray Meadows said the concept has the potential to save the county $880,000 a year by releasing inmates with the monitors instead of paying CiviGenics to keep them in the county-owned downtown jail.

The probation director, in response, has proposed using electronic ankle monitors as an incarceration alternative, starting with offenders on work release who leave the jail every day to work then return again at night:
Curtis Hand, director of the McLennan County Adult Probation Department, said his department is in the midst of a pilot program involving ankle monitors for felony probationers. Linked to a global positioning satellite system, the monitor tracks a defendant’s whereabouts and alerts authorities if he or she strays into forbidden areas.

Hand also thinks the ankle monitor system can help the jail overcrowding situation and perhaps delay another major jail construction project for a few years.
I'm glad folks in Waco are looking for incarceration alternatives, but personally I'm not a great fan of using GPS monitors so widely for low-level offenders, mostly because they're a lot more labor intensive than most people realize, at least if they're going to provide a real measure of added safety.
Some in law enforcement consider GPS as a panacea, but I view it as a tool in the toolbox that's sort of like a router - you don't use it every day but it's occasionally useful when you need it. Only the most dangerous offenders who require the most intensive supervision justify GPS, because the extra monitoring expense can't be justified for low-level offenders.

Like many other counties, excessive pretrial detention is causing McLennan's immediate problem. As of Sept. 1, 135 misdemeanants and state jail felons were incarcerated pretrial in the McLennan County jail, while they're only 87 inmates over capacity. The vast majority of these defendants will receive probation. (Indeed, offenders convicted of state jail felony drug charges MUST receive probation on the first offense.) So it makes little sense to incarcerate these folks pretrial when they're likely to get probation anyway. McLennan judges could solve the overcrowding problem overnight by giving more such low-level offenders personal bonds pending trial.

The day-reporting center modeled in Tyler may be a more practical solution for Waco's medium-term strategy to reduce jail costs.

In any event, it's good to hear of county officials discussing incarceration alternatives instead of immediately jumping to more jail building. There are many better solutions out there if the pols will look for them.

RELATED: See Grits' best practices to reduce county jail overcrowding, Part 1 and Part 2.

7 comments:

jsn said...

I agree I think the salespersons for GPS monitors are much better than their product. We use them for prisoners on work release who work outside the county with good results.

There is a non-real-time GPS monitor that may be a good option for medium risk pretrial release and probation where the GPS data is downloaded once a day.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

GPS is great if you have enough POs to follow up, do home visits, equipment maintenance, etc.. But it requires MORE labor-intensive supervision than regular probation, not less, to have a meaningful public safety effect.

E.g., if the info is just downloaded once per day, as you suggested, jsn, there's no chance to use the data to prevent crime. It becomes just another post-facto datapoint, but doesn't actually improve public safety.

OTOH, if all that's desired is a PR effect, then GPS with little or no monitoring sounds good to the public, who don't really understand it's not a panacea. But a GPS monitor won't prevent offenders from committing bad acts in and of itself.

jsn said...

I need to clarify how the non-real time monitor can make a difference. If a person on probation or pre-trial release violates the condition of release they often are jailed. The non-real-time GPS monitor reduces the chance of a violation. About 15%to 20% of our jail inmates are parole/pretrial release/probation violators.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Really - that's a high number! That makes GPS seem like less of a jail overcrowding solution.

In your county jsn, is an electronic signal prima facie evidence of a violation of release conditions?

jsn said...

Our problem is we moved some community based correction clients to unsupervised probation that should have been on supervision and we have some parolees we need more rigorous supervision than we have the resources for and we have some residential work release clients who walk. Instead of putting the less serious violators in prison we put them in jail and convert the violation into a 30 to 60 day contempt sentence. Then we put them back on CBC supervision.

As you can see we are improvising because we lack the resources to do it properly. I think the CBC clients on EM have a higher level of compliance. Our jail inmates on EM are all serving sentences of a week or longer.

You noted that tattle-tale monitors don't have the security of real time GPS. We make the person pay the cost of EM and real time GPS is very expensive and we have few prisoners who can afford EM. The tattle-tale monitors are not as expensive and I think we can find some good candidates but the sheriff and the judges so far are not willing to use that option.

sunray's wench said...

Grits said: "Only the most dangerous offenders who require the most intensive supervision justify GPS, because the extra monitoring expense can't be justified for low-level offenders."

So, and I know its a big risk, why not try it on a few 'higher-risk' offenders instead? Like the older guys in TDCJ who still have a long time to do but who are fast approaching geriatric status and who probably have health problems. They may not be as 'high-risk' in reality as their sentence says they should be.

pretrial said...

There is an interesting line of thought that questions whether anyone who has to be released on active GPS should be released at all. There also has to be clear violation response plan in place when using active GPS. Passive GPS may have a role in supervision, but the first consideration should be whether there is a need to track a person in passive or active mode. Why do you need the points? Do they add any value in pursuit of your objectives? For example, if an inmate is already in the community daily on work release without GPS, do you really need GPS to ensure he/she goes home at night? If you just want to set a nightly period during which he/she must be home, could you instead use other electronic monitoring or voice analysis alternatives that can be implemented at lesser cost than GPS? Could you utilize a continuum, starting with GPS and moving to less costly alternatives as a reward for compliance?

Two major issues have been noted. Research indicates that GPS, even in passive mode, is labor intensive, and drives caseload numbers down and (not surprisingly) staffing costs up. Proper review of the collected data points is time-consuming. Research also indicates that supervision technologies are not a particularly cost-effective way to supervise low-risk offenders and the increased attention they receive often leads to higher "failure" rates based on technical violations.