Incarceration by Computer Gadget : Judge May Order Electronic Shackle for Abductor

Times Staff Writer

When a Pasadena woman begins her yearlong sentence for stealing an infant, she probably will not be imprisoned by bars but by a small device strapped to her ankle.

That computerized gizmo, about the size of a pack of cigarettes, would alert authorities immediately if she left an unlocked halfway house without authorization. For Cosette Vivas, who kidnaped the Van Nuys baby Jan. 2, house arrest would be better than the alternative of a year in jail, said Barry Taylor, her attorney.

House Arrest

In July, Milton Avol of Beverly Hills became the first defendant in Los Angeles County to wear an electronic shackle when he served 30 days under house arrest in a rundown apartment building he owned on Western Avenue. He was sentenced for violating probation stemming from a conviction on health, fire, building and safety code violations at one of his five apartment buildings.

Vivas' attorney and the prosecutor in her case have given tentative approval to electronic surveillance, which comes up for consideration today before Superior Court Judge David D. Perez.

"She still will be deprived of her freedom," said Perez, who originally sentenced Vivas to a year in jail but with an option--she could spend the year locked up in a private psychiatric hospital, provided she paid the bill.

Perez, who proposed the latest option, said electronic surveillance is an attractive sentencing alternative because it does not contribute to prison crowding.

Vivas, 45, a well-educated Nicaraguan national with wealthy parents, pleaded guilty to kidnaping the 3-month-old son of a Van Nuys couple after posing as a baby sitter. She kidnaped the baby, she claimed later, because she had miscarried and feared that her boyfriend would leave her unless they had a child to raise.

Vivas is not psychotic, but she does suffer from severe neurosis, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. John K. Spillane. Because she is not legally insane, she doesn't qualify for a state mental hospital, where her treatment would be free.

"No one believes she belongs in a state facility, but it is clear she has psychiatric problems that have to be dealt with," Taylor said when Vivas was sentenced.

Although Vivas has a wealthy background--she was once married to a Nicaraguan ambassador to Japan--she has little money now, Taylor said. She cannot afford the $300 a day to stay in a locked psychiatric hospital, Taylor said.

The solution would be an unlocked halfway house operated by Gateway Hospital and Mental Health Center, where she would receive intensive therapy, Taylor said. The cost would be considerably less, and the electronic ankle bracelet would provide the confinement Spillane and the judge say is warranted.

"I would prefer that she be in custody," Spillane said. He called the Gateway hospital a "sort of a lock-down facility."

Limited Travel

Vivas would have to pay $10 a day to wear the device and would be monitored by computer, said officials of Western Corrections, the Salt Lake City-based company that has tentatively agreed to monitor her at the hospital from its Torrance location.

Vivas would be allowed to leave the halfway house in the MacArthur Park area only to go to work, to go to counseling three miles away at Gateway or to perform court-ordered community service, Perez said. If she traveled more than 100 feet from a small gadget attached to her telephone at any other time, Western Corrections would be alerted. It would then notify Perez who could issue an arrest warrant, the judge said.

Perez, a former Van Nuys judge now hearing cases in Santa Monica, said the electronic monitoring device may be used in another of his San Fernando Valley cases, that of a man convicted of a drug-related offense who may be confined to his home wearing such a device. In that way, he would be able to keep his job.

In another Van Nuys case, Superior Court Judge C. Bernard Kaufman on Wednesday offered the option of 60 days in jail or house arrest for a man convicted of misdemeanor arson involving a trash-can fire.

The electronic devices, already used in several other states, were first tried in California last year in San Diego County. Since then, Orange County, the California Youth Authority and the Department of Corrections have used them.

In August, the Los Angeles County Probation Department began using the devices in a pilot program financed by a grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance. At least 10 felony offenders from South-Central Los Angeles have been required to wear electronic shackles.

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