Sheriff pitches better offender monitoring
BRATTLEBORO -- On Monday evening in a Brattleboro courtroom, Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark had a thick black bracelet clamped around his left ankle.
Clark isn't in trouble: In fact, the law-enforcement veteran says he's trying to alleviate problems such as prison overcrowding and increasing corrections costs by proposing a new, 24/7 electronic-monitoring system in Vermont.
If he's given the green light to proceed with a Windham County pilot project operated by his dispatchers and deputies, and if that project gets good reviews, the program could change the way suspects and convicted offenders are handled statewide.
But first, Clark is wearing the device in question for a week in order to enhance his sales pitch and to give himself a better idea of how the technology works.
"I want to be able to tell people, 'I know what it's like to wear the device,'" Clark said. "I know what it's like to have to worry about charging it, to shower with it, to go out and do my daily activities with it."
Vermont Department of Corrections policy is to supervise those who are in its custody "in the least-restrictive environment consistent with public safety and offense severity." In some cases, this means home detention, in which a defendant is restricted to a pre-approved residence and is supervised via electronic monitoring.
In a detailed proposal he recently submitted to state officials, Clark notes that electronic monitoring has been used for more than three decades in more than 20 states.
The suspect or convicted offender wears a device and, "through various communications formats to include global-positioning satellites, cell technology and fixed landline phone systems, a detainee or offender's movements are tracked and confirmed real-time," Clark wrote.
But that "real-time" provision is somewhat misleading in Vermont. While they aren't eager to divulge details, state corrections officials acknowledge that there are gaps in their ability to respond to electronic-monitoring violation alerts during some time periods.
In one recent, local example, Judge David Suntag last November turned down a request for home confinement for Salahdin Trowell, who wanted to be released from jail pending his kidnapping trial in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division.
The reason, Suntag said at the time, was that "the monitoring provision of the home-detention program doesn't suffice." Trowell eventually was convicted of kidnapping, but he stayed behind bars before, during and after his trial.
Rick Bates, district manager at Brattleboro Probation and Parole, said he has spoken to Clark about the sheriff's proposal to upgrade Vermont's electronic-monitoring system.
"What Sheriff Clark is offering is an enhancement on current, available technology," Bates said. "What Keith is proposing to do is something comprehensive -- that's really the news."
Clark said three exchanges led him to develop his proposal. The first was Clark overhearing a request from state Sen. Dick Sears, a Bennington County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"He said, 'Can someone come up with an idea to help us with our corrections costs and our (prisoner) transport costs?'" Clark recalled. "And sheriffs do the transports, so I took that as, 'What can you do?'"
Second, Clark noted that his Newfane-based department recently implemented 24-hour dispatching.
"And I had a conservation with my staff -- the question is, how do we utilize this to the best benefit of the county? How do we really maximize this resource?" Clark said.
The third important exchange, Clark said, came during a local task-force conversation about protecting domestic-violence victims. That included discussion of the shortfalls of the state's monitoring system.
All of which led Clark to a conclusion: "I thought, now is a good time. I have 24-hour monitoring. I've got deputies on the road. I've got a staff that's willing to take on new challenges."
That new challenge is development and management of a two-year pilot project utilizing electronic monitoring both for "pre-trial detainees and post-adjudication sentences."
That monitoring would be provided via the sheriff's dispatch center, a program coordinator and additional deputies hired to respond quickly to reported violations. The sheriff's office, Clark argues, is already outfitted to be a reliable provider of such services.
The department "utilizes fiber network for Internet access and has a cable-based Internet system for backup capability," Clark wrote. The sheriff's office "has emergency generator power which can provide seven days of continuous operation in the event of a grid failure."
Providing the monitoring hardware -- the ankle bracelets worn by offenders -- would be Omnilink, a Georgia-based company that gave a detailed presentation Monday at the Brattleboro courthouse. A company representative touted the system's benefits, including the ability to monitor inside and outside; two anti-tampering mechanisms; detailed data storage; and the ability to build specific "zones" where offenders can or cannot go.
By deploying that technology and monitoring it through his department, Clark is aiming for some big impacts -- "to reduce Department of Corrections costs, reduce corrections bed-space demands, maintain or improve public safety, reduce transportation costs, increase detainee access to services, reduce case-resolution time and (determine) if the program can be replicated statewide," according to his proposal.
The basic idea is that, if the state can effectively manage certain detainees in their homes rather than sending them to prison, there is potential for a more-efficient and less-expensive court system.
Of course, not every suspect will be eligible for home detention. That will be determined by a screening process that includes consideration of offense severity, criminal history, mental health history, drug and alcohol abuse and other factors, Clark said.
The idea has won some support in a relatively short period of time. Sears said "it seems like Keith has done his homework," noting that there is support for the program among court officials, the Department of Corrections and the state's Network Against Domestic Violence.
The pilot program would require some significant cash, however: Clark is asking the Legislature for two years of funding at $300,000 per year. That funding will support a program coordinator, deputies for 24/7 field supervision and response, hardware and software.
The Windham County Sheriff's Department "would be able to monitor and supervise up to 50 individuals per day for a year at that funding level," Clark wrote.
He also predicts significant savings.
"Assuming the program reached its initial maximum of 50 detainees/offenders per day in the first year, the annual savings for the state of Vermont would be $991,300," Clark wrote. "Projected savings amount is based on the 2013 (Department of Corrections cost) report of $25,826 for out-of-state contracted beds. The savings would be higher if utilizing in-state facility cost estimates."
Funding also would be required for independent evaluation of the pilot program's results, Clark said.
For now, he is awaiting permission to proceed "with the hope and belief that this program will be successful here -- that we will identify what makes the program work and not work, and that we will be able to have documentation that this program can be replicated in any county in the state."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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