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Bar News - January 16, 2009


Eye in the Sky: The Technology of Alternative Sentencing

By:

ExacuTrack AT GPS Device (Courtesy BI, Inc.)

Courtesy BI, Inc.

In Somersworth, NH, a tip jar full of cash is stolen from the American Legion. There are no witnesses to the crime, but a satellite high above the surface of the earth is watching. It’s not Orwell’s Big Brother; it’s a reality in today’s criminal justice system.

The man that stole the tip jar was a participant in the Strafford County Community Corrections program who was wearing a passive GPS tracking bracelet at the time of the robbery. Using the information stored on the bracelet, officers tracked the man to the scene of the crime and tracked his getaway. They could even tell that he ran soon after leaving the building since the equipment tracks speed of travel as well as location. He confessed to the crime shortly after being presented with the evidence.

GPS technology may be some of the most advanced equipment utilized by community jail diversion programs, but it is merely a complement to the range of products and services – pivotal to the success of such programs – that are used on a daily basis.

Drug Testing

Drug tests, the first line of monitoring for most post-trial jail diversion programs, are conducted by NH Department of Corrections probation and parole officers and by most of the community-based programs that have come to be the foundation for the alternative sentencing movement.

The Strafford County Drug Court bypassed many of the current problems with the drug-testing process when it purchased a testing machine from Dade Behring Technologies three years ago for about $30,000. While the price seems high, it is low when compared to alternatives such as disposable urine-cup tests, which are often inaccurate and expensive.

Since its purchase, the machine has been used to conduct over 92,000 tests for the Drug Court and for other Strafford County Community Corrections programs; the same number of tests using instant urine-cups would be much more expensive.

The machine, which creates an individual test for each type of drug, uses biological agents that react with the active chemicals in the drug being tested. This, as opposed the instant urine-cups which use a single test for multiple drugs, is much more accurate in its assessment. And since the machine is onsite, says Casale, there is much more control over the accuracy.

"There are chemicals available online that can be added to urine samples to give a false negative on the machine. With the equipment onsite, we can observe the urine test to ensure that there are no chemicals added," said Strafford County Drug Court Director Alex Casale. "We can also measure the results to see if a participant has tried drinking a lot of water to dilute the sample. If a sample comes back as diluted, we count it as a positive."

In most areas of the state, drug testing is done on a scheduled basis with the offender providing a urine sample to a probation or parole officer. The sample, then sent to the state’s testing laboratory, is returned within four to six weeks.

"By the time the test comes back from the lab, the moment has passed and there’s not much significance to the offender," said Casale. "With our machine, we can test anytime and have the results in minutes."

Alcohol Monitoring

Another important tool for New Hampshire’s pre- and post-trial community diversion program staff is the Sobrietor, which is used in both Sullivan and Strafford counties. The Sobrietor is an in-home breathalyzer machine sold by Colorado-based criminal justice technology company Behavioral Interventions, Inc. (BI Incorporated).

The company, in business for the past 25 years, provides its alcohol monitoring to many communities throughout the country. Company representatives say that the Sobrietor is one of the company’s best-selling products. Leased at a daily rate of $4.75, the Sobrietor is an easily affordable method of ensuring the enforcement of alcohol abstinence orders.

Connected to the company’s monitoring system via landline telephone connection, tests can be administered on a schedule or at the request of the agency in charge of supervision. Voice-recognition software is used to ensure that the person taking the test is indeed the offender and extra security is installed in the form of small sensors inside the equipment that can detect movement of the machine away from the participant’s mouth - that is, if the machine is passed to a sober volunteer in order to influence the results.

Allowing local agencies to tell whether program participants are consuming alcohol against court orders is not only a good way to enforce laws and sentences, but also, in the case of drug addicts and alcoholics, an additional form of treatment.

"Research has proven that the more constraints you put on an addict, the better they do," said Casale, who deals exclusively with participants that have drug and alcohol problems. "We put them on the Sobrietor and they do really well; they clean themselves up and make progress."

Tracking Devices

The first offender tracking devices – worn as ankle bracelets – were Radio Frequency (RF) transmitters that sent a signal to a box connected to a telephone line. With these systems, the receiver box is monitored by the agency in charge or by the supplier of the device. Since the operating ranges for RF devices are so low – about 50-feet – applications are limited.

Today, RF tracking devices are used often in cases where a curfew has been assigned. The RF device will engage when the offender arrives home and monitors can ensure that the curfew is kept. In New Hampshire specifically, they are also used often in conjunction with the Sobrietor, since many probation programs require curfews and alcohol abstinence simultaneously.

Increasingly, RF tracking devices are being replaced by devices that rely on GPS technology, which allows for unlimited range as compared to the RF system’s short-range capability.

Now one of the most popular options for offender monitoring, GPS technology was virtually non-existent outside of the military and aviation fields prior to 2000. The rapid adoption of this technology is reflected in many areas of our lives: nearly every cell phone sold today is equipped with a GPS chip; many vehicles are equipped with interactive GPS maps and software; online mapping programs like Google Maps and Mapquest use GPS and even satellite imaging to show visitors the world.

The criminal justice community is also getting into GPS. In the last six years, dozens of companies have released GPS tracking equipment for inmate/offender monitoring.

"We released our first passive GPS technology in, I believe, late 2003," said Thomas Van Houten, eastern regional sales manager for BI Incorporated. "There’s a need for these products. Agencies need to know where offenders are in the community."

The first GPS tracking devices were passive in nature and composed of three separate units – a home base, an ankle bracelet, and a cell phone-like device with the GPS chip. With these, information on the whereabouts of offenders is saved to the phone-like piece and is sent to the monitoring center once the wearer arrives back to his or her home.

Today, though, active GPS systems are once again changing the field of play. Not only are the latest pieces small – usually just a one-piece ankle bracelet – but are also active, meaning that they can track offenders in real time instead of having to wait for the offender to upload the data from home.

"The active GPS system is great. We can track location and speed of travel as [the offender] moves. I can even use the computer software to map a forbidden zone." said Assistant Director of Strafford County Community Correction Joe Devine. "For instance, if a man is pre-trial on a domestic violence charge, we’ll map a zone around the victim’s neighborhood and we’ll be notified within one minute of his entry into the area. We usually call the offender if they enter a zone or we can call the local police to check it out. It’s a great tool for ensuring public safety."

Active GPS systems also operate on cellular frequencies, meaning that offenders don’t have to have a landline telephone to participate in the program.

"In the past, if someone couldn’t afford a telephone line, they stayed in jail, because the tracking devices required landlines," said Casale. "The cellular technology allows lower-income people to participate in these programs, too."

These products and services are accessible not only to lower-income participants, but also to small communities that may not have large corrections budgets. The companies that offer these products and services sell outright, rent or lease the equipment to individual communities and work with them to establish what equipment is necessary.

"We have a budget line-item for equipment. At the end of the year we’re showing a loss, but the jail’s budget is showing a savings, so it works out to be cheaper than just holding someone in jail," said Devine. "Plus, the participants pay a fee to be on the equipment."

Fees charged to participants of Strafford County’s diversion programs are normally $70 per week, but Devine says that there is a sliding scale for those that cannot afford that amount. Participants can even spend a day doing community service in order to fulfill the fee obligation, which Devine says is an added benefit to the community.

"The road crews will go around from town to town shoveling snow from driveways for Meals on Wheels," Devine said, "or they can participate in work for the municipalities. It works out pretty well."

Affordability is likely to prove to be a key in the continuing expansion of programs like those in Strafford County as budgets get tighter and the need for low-cost incarceration alternatives grows.

With the average cost of incarceration at a county jail around $26,000 per person per year, it’s unsurprising that other counties in the state are moving in the direction of diversion programs made possible by the developing technologies.

To date, Merrimack, Rockingham and Cheshire counties now provide administrative home confinement programs in lieu of incarceration; Strafford and Grafton counties have drug court programs; and numerous district courts throughout the state offer similar diversion programs.

"A good percentage of these [Community Corrections] participants would be in jail without this technology," Devine said. "This equipment – from the GPS technology to the drug testing machines – allows us to put people back into the community while still providing the supervision that the courts expect."



 

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