published Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

Cuts leave fewer eyes to watch over offenders on house arrest

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    An ankle bracelet, used for house arrests, rests on a desk at the Hamilton County Community Corrections and Alternative Sentencing facility. Recent layoffs of five employees have resulted in less supervision of the alternative sentencing program.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
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Budget cuts to the Hamilton County Community Corrections program means fewer eyes will be supervising convicted offenders on house arrest.

Five Community Corrections employees are among the 37 workers cut in Hamilton County’s 2012 budget. Those employees tracked homebound offenders through a computer system during nights, weekends and holidays.

Because of the cuts, that information will now be reviewed only during business hours Monday through Friday, according to Barbara Payne, director of the Corrections Department.

“As we have struggled to meet the needs of our current economic reality, we are doing more with less,” Payne said Tuesday.

The cuts will save the county $132,537, she said.

There will be no change in the actual tracking of the offenders, explained Chris Jackson, felony department program manager. That’s all done by a host computer that receives signals from a monitor strapped to the offender’s ankle.

But it does mean there could be slackened response to potential violations. The former workers kept an immediate eye on violations and were able to alert probation officers if they needed to prepare an arrest warrant.

Still, Jackson said that whether the violation is caught immediately or two days late, the office’s ability to respond is always contingent on the court system.

“Only the offender’s probation officer can notify the court, and a warrant can only be filed during business hours anyway,” Jackson said.

Payne said Community Corrections does not track the number of people who go off the grid while wearing the monitor, nor do they compile the number of people arrested while wearing an ankle monitor, Payne said.

Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox said he didn’t know about the cuts to the corrections department.

“It sounds like what they’ve concluded is that the computer is monitoring them adequately and they didn’t necessarily need someone to sit there all the time in the first place,” Cox said.

General Sessions Judge David Bales also said he wasn’t aware that the cuts had happened.

“I don’t really think the fact that there’s these limited hours [of supervision] needs to be publicized,” he said. “When I sentence someone to house arrest I expect them to be constantly monitored. But it’s up to correction officers to stay on top of it, and they know the ins and outs of how it works.”

Fifteen years ago, the county faced heavy criticism for holding a schedule similar to its new one.

In 1997, 19-year-old Todd Peterson was gunned down by Evay Kelley, who was on house arrest. During court proceedings, the county came under fire when judges and Cox said they were shocked that those under house arrest were only monitored during the workday.

Peterson’s parents later filed a lawsuit against the county, citing negligence for its failure to adequately confront Peterson’s numerous house arrest violations, which occurred for hours at a time and sometimes overnight.

Circuit Court ruled the county was not liable for damages in the death of Peterson, but it criticized the county in its handling of Kelley’s case.

Since then, the county had moved to 24-hour supervision.

Jackson insists that offenders like Kelley who so grossly violate the terms are extremely rare.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people in the program do what they’re supposed to,” he said. “It’s the step before a jail sentence.”

Payne refused to comment on whether the decrease in immediate supervision would have a negative impact on the enforcement of community corrections.

“It would be inappropriate to speculate on future events or actions,” she said in an email Tuesday.

LESS EXPENSIVE OPTION

House arrest has been an arm of the corrections department since 1989. Alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders relieves overcrowding in the county jail and workhouse, and also saves county tax dollars, according to Payne.

The cost per day to operate the Misdemeanant Community Corrections Program is $22.54, she said. The 2010 daily rate for housing an inmate at the Hamilton County Jail is $67.99 and $44.95 at the Hamilton County Workhouse, according to the Hamilton County auditor.

Additionally, participants have to pay a daily fee for the program. Jackson said most of those under house arrest are on it for just a few years, but he has had some that wore the transmitter for over 20 years.

Currently, 91 misdemeanants and 81 felons are in the community corrections program under house arrest, according to Payne and Jackson.

Tonya Allen is new to the program, and is still getting used to her new ankle monitor.

“At least it’s black,” she joked Tuesday while meeting with her probation officer on Tuesday. “Black goes with everything.”

Allen pleaded guilty to one count of obtaining controlled substance earlier this month. She was given a suspended sentence of two years and is under house arrest in her Red Bank home.

Her anklet, outfitted with a small transmitter, sends signals to a field monitoring device operating from the electrical and phone systems from inside her home.

Whenever she goes outside the device’s radius—usually “from the front door to the back door,” according to Jackson—the host computer at Community Corrections is notified.

She can only leave her Red Bank home to go to court, meet with her probation officer, visit the doctor’s office or attend church.

The host computer is also immediately notified if any of the equipment is tampered with.

Cox said that in general, house arrest has been successful as a method for deterrence and rehabilitation.

“It’s a very good option for corrections, and it doesn’t sound like they’re doing anything that puts the public in any more jeopardy than they were before,” he said.

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328Kwebsite said...

Ever been in a fight in jail?

Do those look they're worth $100K in paper-pusher savings? How about we hire some guards?

Since most of our political cronies are commercial real estate buddies, and since most of them have vacant spaces for lease, I propose we house these offenders in unsold stores and unleased office space.

Ideal locations and tasks for these people include: Riverview street sweeping, clearing unused office furniture from buildings now empty due to mass terminations, trash pickup along the highway exit for Hamilton Place Mall, leaf raking at Enterprise South Park, golf ball retriever at any one of our fine $1.8 million dollar golf facilities, and, of course, the executive suites at city hall.

Anything that puts a prisoner right in front of the face of those who don't want to pay taxes while scamming the budget for a paycheck.

Ever smelled lots of prisoners during a long day of searching? Anything about discovering contraband weapons in a jail that makes budget cuts sound like a good idea?

Trading budget cuts for more shanks is a bad idea. Perhaps we ought to provide our local wealthy with more environmental exposure to prisoners. Maybe also if they saw what a jail cell looked like, they might be reminded of why ethics are important in life and in government.

To save the necessary money, we can move our six figure executives into some prime office space. Far better than some government offices I know I've worked in, we have luxury space available in Eyesore Towers, next to the stadium. Sweeping, majestic views of the city and skyline. Ample parking. Clean and green solar power nearby. Healthy alpine walking track in the stairwell adjacent to all floors.

A great way to create some savings for officials who are tough on crime. Like Coppinger and Littlefield, for instance. We know they don't need electricity in their offices, because they've obviously not been using their calculators.

Eyesore Towers. Executive suites for City and County officials now available.

July 6, 2011 at 12:32 a.m.
328Kwebsite said...

Lack of money for jailhouse guards? $132,000.

Cost of a new chief of staff, with no experience, because he's worked for Bob Corker? $128,000.

Exactly how much are we going to save by being soft on crime and increasing the number of prisoner weapons inside jail?

July 6, 2011 at 1:12 a.m.
rolando said...

And what do those comments have to do with the cuts of 5 people sitting around all night/weekend waiting for a computer to alert them of a house arrest "breakout"?

"Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox said, 'It sounds like what they’ve concluded is that the computer is monitoring them adequately and they didn’t necessarily need someone to sit there all the time in the first place'."

Nothing happens until normal working hours in any case so review the computer readouts first thing the following morning and go from there...

Good move cutting those 5 positions.

July 6, 2011 at 4:06 a.m.
rolando said...

Good reporting, Ms. Harrison.

July 6, 2011 at 4:07 a.m.
328Kwebsite said...

The same guard force used to monitor prisoners on house arrest is used to monitor prisoners in the jail. There is no separate "sitting around."

As someone who, like many veterans in this area, has had to guard thousands of prisoners and detainees, I take a dim view of these cuts.

Idiotic move cutting these five positions.

They are already among the lowest of paid positions in law enforcement. Poorly supported and often ignored, the activities inside jails and prisons are the cutting edge of law enforcement. The daily grind of public policy takes place in confinement. Politicians frequently brag about writing tougher laws; yet, they rarely visit, much less express an understanding of, the place and process of a jail or prison that's used to actually carry out the directives which follow their wild statements about what the law should be.

To many, the activities inside confinement are a daydream of concrete and cruelty, but to voters like our local veterans, they are a real experience.

Anyone who has seen violence and death inside prison recognizes the shallowness of these money-saving comments.

These cuts are an exceptionally unintelligent decision whose rationalizations and excuses are far removed from reality.

Soft on crime, big on soft money, our self-appointed leaders in local government are making a habit of paying themselves while ignoring their obligations to the people. Those obligations include maintaining law and order inside prisons, and ensuring the welfare of prisoners is maintained at reasonable levels.

The suggestion that guards are merely monitoring the absence of escape is not an example or justification of what realistically needs to happen while being fully responsible for the life and punishment of a prisoner.

These prisoners are our fellow citizens. They are our neighbors. They are our family. While they are in our custody, they still deserve our respect as people. Punishing them does not lower an immutable threshold on the basic dignity of human life. Honoring those abstract concepts of obligations requires a well-supported guard force.

Cheapness that creates problems that were supposed to be solved is not praiseworthy. That includes failing to maintain adequate support and defense of our county jail's guard force.

When people are in jail, including those on house arrest, we are responsible for their welfare. Cutting an already poorly funded and often ignored system is not a solution.

It is especially not a solution as the rich in this area treat themselves to six figure jobs at taxpayer expense. City and County citizens alike are suffering and are going to suffer under those short-sighted, failure-oriented decisions by the Metro Payoff Club.

We do not solve our problems by running away. That includes running away from the basic bills of daily operation.

July 6, 2011 at 7:27 a.m.
328Kwebsite said...

If your guard force had actually saved some days of work, you do not fire them. You shift their activities to other areas of guarding that require refreshing or relief. Keeping someone confined, properly, requires a great deal of work.

The idea that a computer report is justification for staffing cuts in the guard force is intellectually offensive. Only the naive and inexperienced would believe that unlikely ploy.

Support those deputies guarding our prisoners. The prisoners, too, need an adequate guard force to promote a livable standard of confinement. Cutting these jobs was an exceptionally poor idea.

Probably done by people who have never had to stand guard.

July 6, 2011 at 7:50 a.m.

Wait until the first convicted offender on house arrest gets into hot water. What will the county say/do then? Probably won't be Tonya Allen since she goes to "church." God help us all!

July 6, 2011 at 12:26 p.m.
rolando said...

"The idea that a computer report is justification for staffing cuts in the guard force is intellectually offensive."

How about surveillance cameras, 328k? Are those justified to replace humans watching a couple hundred TV monitors surveilling a city? Same thing. You tape everything all night and weekends/holidays and review it later.

July 6, 2011 at 5:36 p.m.
chioK_V said...

They should have never created the monster they created with over incarceration of non-violent offenders. Now the money has dried up.

July 6, 2011 at 8 p.m.
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