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ankle monitors

Outsourcing inmates again

We’ve been down this road before.

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For the first time in three years, the Harris County sheriff began transferring busloads of inmates this week to other correctional facilities to avoid overcrowding at the state’s largest jail.

The jail population is currently at 93 percent of its 9,434-bed capacity, Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman said Monday. He said part of the problem may stem from two recent back-to-back storms with flooding that delayed magistrate courts and consequently stalled the release of some low-level offenders.

Hickman also indicated that judges who set monetary bail for inmates have influenced the rising numbers because 62 percent of the jail’s occupants are awaiting trial.

The fluctuating jail population, he said, is out of his control. “In large part, the jail population is controlled by the courts, who determine which offenders will be released pending adjudication and which will be detained until trial,” Hickman said.

[…]

Hickman said another round of storms and flooding could cause the jail population to climb again.

“A singular event, like another bad rain and floodwaters, would cause us to shut courts down which would back prisoners up on the capacity side of our storage, and we’d be in violation of jail standards again,” he said.

The sheriff said he had very few options for dealing with the high numbers.

See here for previous blogging on this topic. This may be a temporary situation exacerbated by all the damn rain we’ve been having, but we wouldn’t be in this position if the overall jail population hadn’t been trending up. If we want to avoid being vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the TDCJ and the weather gods, there are three things we can do.

1. Bail reform. There are too many people sitting in jail awaiting trial. Some of them belong there, but some of them don’t. Less onerous bail amounts, and more personal recognizance bonds, would solve this problem.

2. Expand Medicaid. OK, I know, there’s nothing Harris County can do about this, and our state leaders are a bunch of deranged lunatics on the subject. Be that as it may, as we well know the Harris County Jail is the country’s largest mental health hospital. Many of the people in the jail getting treatment for mental illness can only get that treatment when they are in jail. You know what would change that? If they had health insurance. How could they get that insurance? If they were eligible for Medicaid. We’ve been over this before, too. The state of Texas and it’s Republican-fueled refusal to expand Medicaid are a big cause of Harris County’s jail overcrowding. Every taxpayer in the county is paying for that.

3. Review and possibly expand the existing early release and ankle monitor programs that were put in place by then-Sheriff Garcia and the courts. Direct deputies to issue citations instead of making arrests for minor violations. None of these would likely be very big, but every little bit helps, and they are options that Sheriff Hickman himself has some control over. Surely that’s worth consideration. Hair Balls has more.

Walking a mile in their ankle monitors

You have to admire this kind of dedication to one’s office.

Though she has never been convicted of a crime, Marsha McLane is having her every movement these days tracked by a satellite-monitored anklet, just like thousands of ex-cons in Texas.

Charged with rebuilding a little-known state agency that supervises high-risk sex offenders, she is looking for a better, high-tech way to keep track of them.

“I’m a nuts and bolts person. … I had to see for myself how the system would work,” she said Monday, after spending five days unsuccessfully trying to foil a new GPS-based monitoring system her agency is considering buying. “If I can’t fool it, knowing what I know, I think it’ll be hard for an offender to do it.”

Last Thursday, the new executive director of the embattled Office of Violent Sex Offender Management strapped on a 3M XT monitor that allows officials to have two-way communication with an offender the instant an alarm goes off indicating he is not where he is supposed to be.

Unlike traditional GPS-based monitors that set off alarms if an offender goes outside of approved zones, or strays too far from the base unit, the new system features a cellphone-sized handset in addition to the anklet that allows the offender to contact his caseworker or other approved numbers if the alarm goes off. Caseworkers and officials monitoring the units can call them as well.

“Right now, when a bracelet alarm goes off, we have no way to contact the offender except to send a caseworker out there to check the offender,” agency Programs Director Kathy Drake said. “This appears to be a much more efficient way to verify their status, much less labor intensive, much faster.”

Records show the agency had 1,300 alarms go off between September and May that turned out to be nothing other than a satellite glitch or an equipment malfunction or something else as benign.

“You can see the savings to the taxpayers if we can check out alarms quickly without having to make the trip,” McLane said.

Makes sense to me. I’ve talked about ankle monitors before. They have their issues, but they can be used to help keep low-risk and non-violent offenders out of jail, which is a win all around. They can also be used as in this case for monitoring offenders that have additional conditions after being released from prison. If the technology has improved and if the supervisors and probation officers that handle the offenders that use them really know how they operate, then so much the better. Kudos to Marsha McLane for her attention to detail.

More ankle monitors

Harris County will try using ankle monitors on some inmates as a way of reducing the jail population.

The program, approved unanimously by Commissioners Court last week, is the county’s latest stab at thinning the jail population. As of Wednesday, the county had 9,850 inmates, including 978 being held in other Texas counties or in Louisiana due to lack of space at the downtown lockups.

“Ankle monitors for certain prisoners make a lot of sense so that we don’t have to bring them into the jail and use up jail cells for them,” County Judge Ed Emmett said. “The frustrating thing is, that idea’s been around for years. Finally, we’re getting to it. It’s about time, and I’m glad we’re doing it.”

Electronic monitoring is common but rarely has been used in lieu of a jail sentence, said Caprice Cosper, the county’s director of criminal justice coordination. Last year, 883 people were monitored electronically by the county’s Supervision & Corrections, Juvenile Probation and Pretrial Services departments.

Hey, it’s a Caprice Cosper sighting! I was beginning to think she’d been shipped to another county, too.

The pilot program will run until Sept. 14. County officials then will consider whether to expand it, said the sheriff’s chief administrative officer, John Dyess. Ideally, offenders would be given their monitors at court and never booked into jail, Dyess said.

Choosing who is sentenced to house arrest and fitted with a monitor will be up to the two County Court-at-Law judges and two District Court judges who signed up for the pilot program.

Interestingly, this story does not mention another pilot program from January, in which some inmates who work outside the jail were fitted with the monitors. I presume that must have gone off without any major incident, as it would seem unlikely that Commissioners Court would approve any further experimentation if it had. That program was run by the Sheriff, whereas this one is being done in the courts. Like that one, this won’t make a big dent in the inmate numbers – it’s still the same old same old that has not yet been adequately addressed – but every little bit does help. I wish them success with this test.

Why aren’t we tracking this?

This sounds like a job for the Legislature.

The number of parolees being tracked with ankle monitors in Texas has mushroomed to nearly 3,000 in the last two years. About 600 reside in Harris County. The county also has 150 adult probationers and 32 juvenile probationers with the devices.

But so far the monitors have been far from foolproof.

In the last two years, arrest warrants were issued 632 times for “tamper alerts” involving Texas parolees “after business hours,” the state parole department said.

But this is only a fraction of the total number of alerts. The tally does not include warrants issued for alerts during work hours, nor alerts that did not generate arrest warrants.

Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said a full tally would require a “manual review of all records.” For the same reason, the state could not report how many parolees assigned ankle monitors were charged with new crimes.

It’s a no-brainer to me that TDCJ needs to be tracking that. Ankle monitors for some low-risk inmates seem like a good idea to control prison populations, but only if we can be reasonably sure that they’re working as we intend them to be. Someone needs to file a bill to require TDCJ to keep statistics on this.

As the story notes, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office is now using GPS ankle monitors on some of its prisoners, who work outside the jail. It too is being road-tested as a cost-saving mechanism, which I support. I wanted to know what they were doing to track these prisoners, so I sent an email to Alan Bernstein, the Director of Public Affairs for the HCSO, to ask. This was the response I got:

We’re merely in the testing phase. If judges allow/order certain low-risk inmates to leave jail on a GPS-based monitor, will we keep after-the-fact records on any perimeter violations, especially those in which the inmate committed another crime? I am almost certain we will.

Good to know. TDCJ, it’s time to do something about this.

Ankle monitors

Also on the Commissioners Court agenda this week, Harris County will take another small step towards reducing its jail population by experimenting with ankle monitors for low-risk inmates.

Commissioners Court granted Sheriff Adrian Garcia permission Tuesday to do a trial run on 10 to 20 inmates who work outside the jail under armed guard. If the technology works, the sheriff would come back to the court with plans to try it on unsupervised inmates who would serve their sentences at home.

“We’ll seek permission and court orders to keep certain inmates in our custody, but not necessarily in our jail. Obviously, the idea is to keep Harris County safe and save money in the process,” Garcia told the court.

Last year, local judges sentenced about 800 offenders to serve their sentences on weekends, allowing them to leave jail and keep their jobs during the week. Those 800 inmates had to be booked into and released from jail approximately 10,000 times, the sheriff said.

“‚ÄČ’Weekenders,’ as we refer to them, take up costly jail cells that we would otherwise want to save for accused offenders that are a true danger to the public,” Garcia said.

Seems sensible to me, and I hope it works out. I doubt it will have much effect on the jail population – as we’ve discussed many times by now, things like probation reform so that offenders don’t choose it as the less onerous option to jail time, and more use of personal recognizance bonds, will have a much more salutary effect – but every little bit will help, and all reasonable options should be employed. Grits has noted that ankle monitors aren’t a panacea and will still require manpower, so we’ll see how this experiment goes.