BRATTLEBORO -- A new electronic-monitoring program -- designed to track a suspect's whereabouts in real time, 24/7 -- is about to debut in the Windham County court system.
Having spent the past several months working through details of the state-funded pilot project, Windham County Sheriff's Department administrators expect to soon begin monitoring some suspects who are awaiting trial at home rather than in prison.
"Our original plan was mid-September, so we're pretty close to that," Sheriff Keith Clark said. "We are now at the point where we are ready for the first person."
Clark pitched the idea to the Vermont Legislature in the spring, and lawmakers responded with a $200,000 allocation for the first year of what was planned as a two-year pilot project in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division.
Electronic monitoring already is used widely: Suspects are released from prison while their case is pending, and their movements are tracked electronically via global-positioning satellites, cellular technology and land-line phones.
But Vermont's monitoring program, operated by the state Department of Corrections, has well-documented flaws. Officials have said there are gaps in their ability to respond to violation alerts during some time periods.
As a result, some defendants who might be eligible for home detention are denied permission to use that program. And that puts further strain on an already overburdened state prison system.
Clark's idea is to fill the current system's gaps by using his Newfane-based department's 24-hour dispatching center to provide real-time monitoring of suspects and to coordinate response to violations. He believes the benefits will include a more-efficient court system, improved public safety and cost savings.
State Department of Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito has said that the project, "if successful ... should divert people from entering jail on detention status toward other supervision statuses such as home detention. This would be possible because the WCSD program will offer supervision, 24/7, while in the community."
After receiving state funding for the Windham County pilot project, Clark hired Dawn Hubbard to serve as the pilot program's coordinator. Hubbard has law-enforcement experience and worked for a dozen years as head of security at Landmark College in Putney.
"She came aboard the first of July and put all the policies and procedures in place," Clark said. "She's done a really good job."
Hubbard said she has relied in part on the experiences of those who already are working with real-time electronic monitoring.
"It's been a lot of research," she said. "There's been a lot of contact with other agencies across the country that have these programs in place.
Hubbard also reiterated that not all suspects will be eligible for electronic monitoring. Each case will be evaluated individually.
"We do a criminal-background check. We do a check of the residence where they will be residing," she said.
Of course, officials also will consider the nature of a suspect's pending charges.
On Wednesday, Hubbard said she was evaluating a suspect's eligibility for monitoring. But it was not yet clear exactly when the new program would have its first participant.
Clark said the goal is to have a daily average of 10 to 12 people participating in the electronic-monitoring pilot project. But enrollment will not start at that level.
"It will be slow initially, because we want to make sure we've identified everything that may need to be fixed," Clark said.
At the end of the pilot program, the Vermont Center for Justice Research is expected to conduct an independent evaluation of the new monitoring system and its potential for use statewide.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.