Electronic Leash Keeps Criminals in Their Place

Times County Bureau Chief

A sex offender quarreled with his wife when she tied up the telephone longer than five minutes. A drunk driver installed a special telephone line. A young woman finished her pregnancy at home rather than in a hospital jail ward.

Those are among the experiences of three of the 133 inmates who have served time under the Orange County Probation Department's "electronic leash" program since it began in November, 1986.

Formally known as Supervised Electronic Confinement, it is a form of high-tech house arrest designed to help relieve jail overcrowding by allowing low-risk offenders to spend their nights at home rather than behind bars. The inmates wear wristlets they insert into boxes attached to their telephones when a computer calls to verify their whereabouts.

Phone Calls Limited

Marie Whittington, the Probation Department official who runs the program, said those under house arrest are called three to nine times every day, and private phone calls are limited to five minutes each.

"We do give them reasonable sleep hours," Whittington said, but "if we suspect that they are sneaking out . . . we may add some calls during the middle of the night."

Although Michael Schumacher, the county's probation director, worried last summer during budget hearings that the program might be scrapped, the Board of Supervisors saved it for the remainder of the year. Tuesday, the supervisors are to decide whether to renew it.

Schumacher says the program has been a great success and would like it to include more inmates. It already has been expanded to juveniles on an experimental basis, despite concerns about whether teen-agers would be responsible enough to participate.

"Although six minors absconded from supervision, all left the equipment behind," said a Probation Department report on the program.

Trial Run Successful

Still, the report said, the trial run with juveniles was successful, and 40 juveniles at a time should be allowed to take part. Until now, the program has been available to a maximum of 25 adult inmates at a time; Schumacher would like to raise it to 75.

Whittington said the Probation Department estimates that when the program is in full gear, with 75 inmates in it nearly all the time, it will cost $10 a day per participant. She said that contrasts with $20 to $50 daily for each inmate in a county jail.

Part of the $10 is defrayed by the "user fee" collected from participants, which Whittington said ranges from $5 to $18 daily, depending on a person's income and number of dependents.

One of the inmates who went through the program had been convicted of a sex offense. He and other participants agreed to interviews on the condition that they not be identified.

"The biggest problem we had with it was, like, with my wife, we had some arguments," the man said. "You know, she'd have somebody call--she's involved in a lot of things. And you're not supposed to stay on the phone more than five minutes. We had several arguments about that. I was getting uptight. . . . Other than that, I had no problems at all."

Because of his heart condition, a need for more exercise than he could get in jail and a desire to see his own heart specialist, the man's sentencing judge allowed him to spend his sentence--six months of confinement--at home.

Jail Confinement Avoided

As would have been the case had he been sentenced to the county's work furlough program, he was allowed to work during the day. But on nights and weekends he was at home, not in jail.

"I didn't find it difficult" being cooped up at home, he said. "I found a lot of things to do around the house. My wife says I kind of became a househusband."

His wife agreed that the problem with the telephone was difficult at first "because most of the people in our lives didn't know what was going on," and she had no desire to broadcast the news of her husband's conviction.

"Five minutes goes really fast on a telephone," she said. "I would either stay on more than five minutes, and (her husband) and I would have an argument about it, or I would say, 'Something's burning on the stove, and may I call you back?' Or I would go and use my daughter's phone."

No Alcohol Allowed

She said the other rules of the program were not too hard to follow. No alcohol is allowed in the house, so she gave away all the wine and beer. She sought and received permission for her daughter and son-in-law to stay in the house overnight when they visited.

She could have visitors; her husband could not. So when her friends came, her husband stayed in another room. She asked if the couple, accustomed to eating out on Friday nights but unable to continue the tradition because of the rules, could get permission to dine out on an anniversary.

The probation officers "were very understanding and sympathetic," she said. But the answer was "no."

When her husband's six months in the program were over, she said, probation officers "gave me the pleasure of cutting his wristband off. And that was extremely neat. It's like anything in your life, if you are a married person, it's a together program."

Very few of the inmates participating in the program were convicted of what the Probation Department classifies as "crimes against persons." Eighty percent are drunk drivers. Another 12.2% were convicted of property crimes. The rest were convicted of substance abuse or other offenses.

More than 90% of the participants have been male; 95% had no prior felony convictions, and 80% were 24 or older when they were first convicted of a crime.

Whittington said only four of the 133 inmates were caught violating the rules--three through "technical violations," such as having alcohol in the house, and one who committed another crime.

Officials Are Choosy

Whittington said department officials are choosy about who gets to serve jail time at home. Evaluators look at applicants and ask, "Can they make it on the program?" she said. "If so, we'll give them a try. We're not trying to be terribly exclusive, but we do want them to succeed."

One of the women participating in the program had been convicted three times of drunk driving. The third arrest also counted as a violation of the terms of the probation of her second drunk-driving sentence.

The woman spent 45 days at the James A. Musick branch jail near El Toro on the work furlough program. "At that time, I was six to seven months pregnant," she remembered. "(Jailers) kept asking me, 'When do you get out? You're not going to have it here, are you?' I think they were as relieved as I was (when she got in the program)."

The woman said she was concerned that not being accepted for house arrest would mean winding up in the main women's jail in downtown Santa Ana as her delivery date got closer so that she would be nearer the UCI Medical Center, where inmates needing hospital care are treated.

"I didn't really like the sound of that because I had my obstetrician already," she said.

Didn't Want to Mess Up

When she got on the leash program, she made sure she stayed home as required at night and on weekends. "I knew that if I left the house and they phoned, I'd start blowing it, and I didn't want to mess up what I had. I had a great appreciation for being on the program. I thought it was fantastic."

The woman, now a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and a part-time college student, said she is planning to return to work as a receptionist in February.

The Probation Department report on the house arrest program said the participants who do best are those who have spent some time behind bars. "Those who do not (spend time in jail beforehand) exhibit less motivation to comply with program conditions," the report said. They tend to "test the program" and try to cajole probation officers into relaxing conditions.

The report said people with medical problems are exceptions to the rule because they appreciate the chance to see their own doctors.

A judge can bar any applicant from taking part in the program, but the Probation Department report said judges approve nearly 80% of applications for the program.

20 Counties Experimenting

Joan Petersilia, a senior researcher in the Rand Corp. criminal-justice program, said about 20 counties throughout the nation are using various types of electronic confinement programs on an experimental basis.

San Diego's program began before Orange County's. Los Angeles County launched a federally funded one-year test program last summer.

The first person sentenced in Los Angeles County was Beverly Hills neurosurgeon Milton Avol, who was ordered to spend 30 days in a slum apartment he owned for failing to correct health, fire and safety violations.

Orange County inmates on the house arrest program thus far have not achieved the notoriety of Avol.

A more typical example is a man who was convicted three times of drunk driving. He had been on probation before and seemed a prime candidate for jail--except for the multiple fractures he had suffered in an on-the-job accident.

The man applied for house arrest and was accepted.

Six to 10 times a day he got telephone calls from a computer or probation officers, he said, and was personally visited several times a week.

"I ended up getting another phone put in just for my electronic surveillance," he said, "because I have two teen-agers at home here, and I didn't want to take the chance of them being on the phone more than five minutes."

In addition to his house arrest, the man was put on probation, was required to receive counseling and went through an Alcoholics Anonymous program.

His feelings about the program?

"It was a lot better than going to jail."

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