Cuts leave fewer eyes to watch over offenders on house arrest

Cuts leave fewer eyes to watch over offenders on house arrest

July 6th, 2011 by Kate Belz in News

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/Times Free Press.

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.