Sheriff seeks to expand electronic monitoring of suspects

New state law allows pilot program to operate for two more years

NEWFANE — Two years ago, Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark began experimenting with a new, 24-hour electronic monitoring program designed for suspects who might otherwise have been sent to prison to await disposition of their cases.

Now, after receiving a positive review from a nonprofit crime-research group and backing from the state Legislature, Clark will try to expand the program statewide.

Though the monitoring program got off to a somewhat slow start in Windham County, officials say it has shown clear financial benefits - about $2,210 per participant - by keeping suspects out of expensive prison beds.

Clark wants to prove that there also are important benefits to allowing a pretrial defendant to work, pay taxes, find health care, and seek social services outside prison walls. He sees electronic monitoring as both a corrections program and a “social support program.”

“The interest is there - the very strong belief that this will save money for the state [and] create better outcomes for people accused of offenses,” Clark said.

An alternative to prison

While officials have said Vermont's inmate population is declining, the state continues to send offenders to a private corrections facility in Michigan due to a lack of prison capacity here. The costs of incarceration - both financial and social - have led to calls for criminal-justice reform.

One way to reduce prison stays, Clark has argued, is to find alternative ways to handle those who have been accused of crimes but not yet convicted. His Windham County Electronic Monitoring Program is a proposed solution to that problem.

Unlike the monitoring system operated by the Vermont Department of Corrections, the sheriff's program offers constant, real-time tracking of defendants wearing electronic ankle bracelets.

A recent review by the Montpelier-based Crime Research Group declared Clark's initiative “the first in the state to provide 24-hour active monitoring of defendants through the use of the global positioning system and cell tower technology.”

Depending on the circumstances of their cases, defendants approved for entry into the program are assigned places they can and cannot go as well as schedules for their daily travels. A sheriff's dispatcher is alerted of violations, and law enforcement responds as needed.

Clark initially received $200,000 in state funding to operate an electronic monitoring pilot project in Windham County for fiscal years 2015 and 2016.

Taking a closer look

Crime Research Group's review of that pilot program, issued last month, found that 53 people had been screened for electronic monitoring as of May 25 of this year. Thirty-four were rejected.

“Housing was the most significant factor impacting the numbers of individuals allowed into the [monitoring] program,” the nonprofit's report says. “Eleven defendants were rejected because of a lack of suitable housing.”

After interviewing a variety of people affiliated with the court system, the report's author noted frustration with the electronic monitoring program's lower-than-expected enrollment numbers. Aside from a lack of housing, other factors that suppressed enrollment included suspects who committed crimes in Windham County but lived elsewhere, and a “lack of interest from some defendants (it is easier to do the time).”

The report also noted a need for better communication about potential electronic monitoring enrollees. “Communication among the stakeholders is not streamlined or institutionalized yet, resulting in some defendants either being delayed entry or not having access to the program,” the document says.

Clark acknowledged the pilot program's “small sample size,” but he said the results were nonetheless encouraging. “We were doing what we said we could do,” he said.

Crime Research Group's report supports the sheriff's stance.

The 19 people who were accepted for the program - most of whom faced felony charges - spent a total of 2,051 days wearing the electronic bracelet, the group found. The shortest stay was 12 days, and the longest was 440 days.

Each day spent on the electronic monitoring program saves Vermont money, officials say. The sheriff's program costs $28.78 per day for each defendant, while incarceration costs $159 per day, the report says.

Clear financial benefits

When examining the cases of 10 “successful” defendants - those who stayed on the electronic monitoring program until their charges were resolved - Crime Research Group found that the state's total savings was $201,574.

Clark said such financial benefits meant he didn't have to make a hard sales pitch to gain continued state support for his initiative. At the end of the 2016 session, lawmakers approved the bill that became Act 125, which extends the sheriff's electronic monitoring pilot program until June 30, 2018.

Clark believes the act will boost the monitoring program's numbers within Windham County because it allows judges to consider ordering any defendant to participate in electronic monitoring as a condition of release.

That means monitoring isn't limited only to those who would otherwise be headed to prison, Clark said. “Under this expanded version, the courts could put anyone on the program when they felt it would be beneficial to have them on it,” he said.

The act also allows for the program's expansion beyond Windham County provided that Clark can get written agreements with other county sheriffs. Clark said his department's dispatch center would continue to monitor defendants in other counties, then would send out alerts about potential violations to the applicable law enforcement agency.

Each sheriff's department would be compensated for providing electronic monitoring services, he said. The Department of Corrections is the source of such funding, though the money first would go to the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs before being allocated to participating sheriffs.

While not setting a specific dollar amount for an expanded monitoring program, the fiscal 2017 budget bill says the Corrections Department can spend money to contract for that service anywhere in the state.

Expansion of the Windham County monitoring initiative also is predicated on Clark developing a set of written policies and procedures for the program. The Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee must approve those documents.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington and chairman of that committee, said he wants to see the monitoring program grow given the potential for significant financial savings.

“I basically agree with the sheriff, but the [enrollment] numbers are just not there in Windham County,” Sears said. “I hope to see the program go statewide for a select group of offenders who would otherwise be incarcerated awaiting trial.”

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