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When a Beep Takes Over for Prison Bars : Electronic Home Detention Is Hailed as Innovative by Some, Orwellian by Others

Times Staff Writer

The convicted drunk-driving offender spends about eight hours a day at his job. When he’s finished, Jeff can do a little yard work or, since he’s mechanically inclined, tinker with a few engines. He gets to spend plenty of time with his wife and son. The bed in his room is comfortable, he can watch as much TV as he wants, and there’s a stocked refrigerator down the hall.

If that sounds as good as home, that’s because, in this case, the place where Jeff is serving his sentence is his Mira Mesa home.

Two and a half years after San Diego County began an experiment alternately hailed as innovative and decried as having Orwellian overtones, some convicted county criminals now do their time at home, restrained not by bars or handcuffs but by electronic sensors.

Strapped to Ankle or Wrist

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Under the county’s Electronic Surveillance Program (ESP), the first of its kind in California, some “low-risk” offenders are permitted to go to work during the day while being confined to their homes at night and on weekends.

The offender’s movements are monitored by a 6-inch-long electronic transmitter, strapped to an ankle or wrist, that emits an inaudible beep picked up by a receiver connected to the inmate’s telephone.

Whenever the offender strays more than 150 feet from the receiver, the device detects the absence and registers it with a central computer. If he leaves the house without the approval of county probation officers, there is a good chance the offender will find himself back in jail.

Since its inception in July, 1986, 550 of the 633 inmates from the Probation and Sheriff’s departments who have participated in the program have successfully completed their confinement at home, according to Cecil Steppe, the county’s chief probation officer.

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That 87% success rate, combined with the contention by supporters that the program helps free scarce and expensive jail cells for hardened criminals, last month prompted the Board of Supervisors to press for expansion of the house-arrest plan. Doing so, some argue, could be part of the answer to the county’s longstanding jail crowding problem.

“I think we ought to expand this to the maximum, without going over the line to include people who belong in jail,” Supervisor John MacDonald said. “It’s one of the ways we can cut the continual cost of expanding jails while also making it possible to place certain nonviolent offenders in a better situation than being tossed in with a lot of hard-core felons.”

Getting Off Too Easy?

Critics, however, argue that some offenders placed in the program may be getting off easier than they deserve, and warn that expanding the program poses possible dangers to the public and could even be unfair to the offenders themselves.

“If somebody ought to be in jail to protect the public, then that’s where he should be,” Municipal Judge H. Ronald Domnitz said. “And, if he doesn’t deserve to be in jail, then he ought to be in rehabilitative circumstances . . . without being hassled by these electronic bracelets.”

Since its introduction by Palm Beach County, Fla., in late 1984, electronic home detention has become increasingly common nationwide, and now is used in two-thirds of the states. Although most programs report success rates comparable to that of San Diego, even the most ardent advocates doubt that such alternatives to conventional incarceration will become, at least for the foreseeable future, more than a small part of the overall criminal-justice picture.

According to a survey by the Washington-based National Institute of Justice, only 2,300 offenders in 33 states were enrolled in electronic home-detention programs last year. Although that represented a threefold increase over 1987, the relatively small number demonstrates the resistance and cautious approach engendered by the program, as well as its limited scope in reducing jail populations.

“This is never going to be the answer to jail overcrowding,” county probation supervisor Ron Barkett said. “But it may be one way we can keep problems like that from getting worse.”

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Explanations of the program’s limitations begin with the relatively narrow range of offenders eligible for home detention in San Diego and elsewhere.

Hard to Qualify

Referring to the intensive screening used to select home-detention candidates in San Diego, Steppe notes that “it’s probably harder to get into” the program than to successfully complete it.

To date, county officials did not assign offenders to the program if a judge objected--which is one of the reasons why only about half of those first screened are accepted. Probation officers describe that step as a “courtesy” to judges, but a judicial veto over such assignments is guaranteed by recent state legislation authorizing a three-year, statewide pilot project similar to San Diego’s program.

Eligibility for the San Diego program is now limited to volunteers from the county’s work-furlough system, in which convicted offenders are allowed to work but are locked up overnight in a detention center in Southeast San Diego. People convicted of violent offenses, sex crimes and serious drug charges are among those excluded from the home-detention program.

Those guidelines automatically rule out the vast majority of jail inmates, narrowing the program’s reach to offenses such as drunken driving, minor burglaries, fraud and various white-collar crimes.

Unless those standards are lowered--an unlikely occurrence, given the likelihood of judicial and public opposition--house-arrest programs probably will never make more than a small dent in local jails’ inmate populations, which typically are nearly double the facilities’ official capacities. As of last week, only 23 San Diegans were under the house-detention program, although the number occasionally has been twice that large.

Supporters of the San Diego program, however, hasten to point out that it was never envisioned as a panacea for jail crowding. Rather, it stemmed from Steppe’s desire to reduce a serious backlog in the work-furlough program that often created months-long waits between the time a person was sentenced to the program and when he actually served his sentence.

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Certain and Swift

“For punishment to mean anything, it has to be certain and it has to be swift,” Steppe said. “We were getting to a point in work-furlough where it was neither.”

With severe economic constraints having become all but a permanent fixture in municipal government, the comparatively low price of electronic surveillance is one of the program’s most compelling advantages.

Fees paid by participants--$10 daily if they earn less than $5 an hour, $15 a day for most of those whose salary is higher--have covered the cost of the 85 bracelets purchased, the computer used to monitor them and the salaries of the two probation officers who oversee the program, Steppe said.

In contrast, it costs $28 daily to house a person in the county’s work-furlough detention center--with about half that fee being paid by the offender--and $43 a day to feed, clothe and guard jail inmates, according to Probation and Sheriff’s department figures. That latter figure, moreover, does not include the jails’ multimillion-dollar construction costs--dramatically widening the price differential.

Opponents concede that home detention is cheaper than routine incarceration, but contend that economics should not be the guiding principle behind criminal justice.

“I guess my feeling is, yeah, it’s cheaper--so what?” Domnitz said. “If people deserve to be in jail, you don’t let them stay at home just because it’s going to save a few dollars. As far as I’m concerned, this whole thing is just a gimmick to reduce jail overcrowding. It’s nonsense, period.”

In addition, arguments that house arrest adequately punishes “first-time offenders” without being unnecessarily punitive overlooks the fact that relatively few people draw a jail sentence for their first minor offense, Domnitz and others emphasize. By the time such a person is sentenced to jail, he often has committed several offenses and, from the judge’s perspective, has passed the point where leniency is merited.

Such judicial skepticism and the prevailing public sentiment that house detention is too easy a way out for criminals are perhaps the major barriers to wider use of such programs, some supporters say.

“California used to be the national leader in innovative programs like this, but now we’re in such a punitive mode that we’re way behind,” said Tom Gitchoff, a professor of criminal science at San Diego State University. “There are ways to punish people other than just sticking them in jail cells. Besides, some of these low-risk offenders don’t really need to be in expensive, maximum-security jails. But the public really doesn’t want to hear that these days.”

Although conceding the obvious by agreeing that home detention is a softer form of punishment than jail, Steppe disputes those who characterize the electronic surveillance program as being little more than an inconvenience akin to a teen-ager being grounded by his parents.

“In some ways, this can be tougher than being in jail,” Steppe said. “Sure, it’s nice to be around your family, but it can get tough when your kids keep saying, ‘Dad, take us to a movie,’ or ‘Let’s get an ice cream.’ Over time, that wears on you. . . . In jail, you lay on your behind watching TV. You know why you’re there. At home, you have more freedom, but it can be psychologically tougher . . . accepting the limits. There are temptations and frustrations you don’t have in jail.”

Similarly, Gina Walker, director of Pride Inc., the private firm that runs Palm Beach’s home-detention program, said few offenders complete that program “feeling they got off easy. Most say it’s pretty stiff punishment.” Even so, the program’s appeal to inmates is vividly demonstrated by the fact that participants not only agree to pay $9 a day, but also consent to having their jail sentences tripled. In other words, an offender facing a 30-day jail sentence must serve 90 days under the home program. Despite the longer sentences, that program, which handles about 400 offenders annually, has nearly a 90% success rate, she said.

Although some Florida offenders have been on the program as long as 15 months, San Diego officials have generally adhered to a 90-day maximum, feeling that compliance would drop precipitously with longer periods.

Except in rare instances, such as those in which an offender’s medical problems make house arrest a logistically simpler alternative to jail, no local inmate serves his entire sentence under electronic surveillance, county officials stress. At a minimum, most spend at least several weeks in the overnight work-furlough detention center, “to give them a taste of incarceration,” Steppe explained.

Other than work, there are few other reasons for which a person on the electronic detention program may leave their homes. The other exceptions, to be cleared in advance with probation officers, include medical and dental appointments, meetings with lawyers and a brief weekly grocery-store visit. Offenders also are forbidden to drink alcoholic beverages and, occasionally, to drive while in the program.

Several weeks ago, however, a female offender in the program had one of the most valid reasons imaginable for leaving her house: She gave birth to a baby on Valentine’s Day.

“We call it our first ESP baby,” joked probation officer Ann Royer-Hirsch. Several days later, mother and child were back within the 150-foot radius of the transmitter.

Can’t Trick Computer

The electronic bracelets are water-resistant, shockproof and tamper-proof.

“The computer can’t be tricked, and if you remove (the bracelet), you’ll be caught soon enough,” probation supervisor Barkett noted.

Probation officers also make periodic unannounced visits and telephone calls to the offenders’ homes and workplaces to check for violations. Inmates who fail to successfully complete the program can be reassigned to a work-furlough detention center, honor camp or jail to serve their full sentence--with no credit for the days served at home.

All those factors, however, have not stopped a few inmates from trying to beat a system that officials say is unbeatable--attempts that usually end in comic failures.

One offender, for example, offered several suspicious-sounding excuses for why his bracelet kept “malfunctioning.” Once, he said the device was damaged while wrestling with his niece. Another time, the transmitter supposedly was accidentally unplugged. Increasingly skeptical officials gave him the benefit of the doubt until another unauthorized movement recorded by the computer was explained away as the result of a violent love-making session with his girlfriend.

“At that point, I said, ‘That’s it, get him back in here,’ ” Barkett recalled.

After a few weeks at home, several offenders, besieged by spousal or family demands, have begged officials to put them back into detention facilities, while loss of a job or place to live have forced several others back into the work-furlough center. The most common reason for the admittedly low number of failures, however, has been drug use or alcohol consumption, detected in random checks.

Whatever the potential pitfalls of the program, however, most offenders who go through it give it rave reviews--particularly considering the alternative.

“At home, you certainly have a bigger realm, so I find it easier on the mind,” said Jeff, the Mira Mesa man convicted on a drunken-driving charge and now in the early stages of a three-month house-detention sentence. “When I was in (the work-furlough detention center), I took several books with me and I think I had them memorized. Here, I’m around my family and can pretty much do what I would otherwise. There are some things I wanted to do--like seeing the Padres early in the year--that I’ll have to give up, but I accept that.”

With economics, a successful track record and a supportive Board of Supervisors behind him, Steppe said he hopes to find ways to meet the board’s charge to expand the program this year. He has already suggested, for example, using the electronic bracelets to verify that youth gang members are abiding by court-imposed curfews.

Nevertheless, he cautions against unrealistic expectations for high-tech incarceration.

“This is a valuable tool, but we have to be careful about how we use it,” Steppe said. “Let’s put it this way: There never will be more people wearing these bracelets than are in jail. We shouldn’t forget there are good reasons for that.”


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