Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Effective Monitoring of Criminal Defendants

GPS monitoring, also known as a global positioning system, is a tracking method that is supposed to be able to track a person’s precise location at any given time.  Such devices have been widely used to track the whereabouts of defendants charged with certain alleged crimes while out of jail during the pretrial phase of their case.  GPS tracking software allows the court to monitor a defendant’s location, which is displayed on a map in real time with recorded location data stored in the tracking unit.

GPS monitoring in Orange County was first suspended and is now eliminated via an administrative order issued by Chief Judge Belvin Perry, Jr. due to what he said resulted from major flaws in using the devices.  Orange County, FL is not alone in taking a serious look at GPS monitoring.

The Wisconsin Legislature’s budget committee recently voted to recommend scaling back a planned expansion of the state’s GPS monitoring program citing concerns over how well the technology works.  The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found in a series of reports, that offenders on GPS tracking devices reported hundreds of false alerts that often put them back in jail even though they had not committed any true violations.  Dropped signals often occurred when offenders were traveling to designated sites, in buildings or during severe weather.

In contrast, California’s violent criminals and sex offenders placed on GPS monitoring, due in part to California’s “re-alignment” efforts to push state prisoners to county jails, have been cutting off the devices and committing new crimes.  Over 4,000 state parolees cut off their GPS monitors last year, leading the California Senate to approve a new bill to increase penalties for paroled sex offenders who cut off their GPS devices.

Another monitoring tool that shows its limitations.

Orange County, Florida’s Monitoring Programs

Orange County Corrections had a home confinement program that used radio-frequency monitoring and was managed by Orange County Corrections staff.  There was also a privately-run GPS program to monitor defendants.  Both programs were initially suspended and now are terminated from providing any type of monitoring to arrested defendants pending the disposition of their case. 

As Orange County’s public safety director Linda Weinberg recently stated, what remains is a, “loosely monitored program,” to provide supervision via a telephone monitoring system.  Weinberg further stated, “A number of people started coming on pretrial-release supervision.  Some of these people, because of the nature of their charges, are not really appropriate for pretrial-release supervision.”

The commercial bail industry, which has been tracking such releases for several years, has been providing release information to the County that shows defendants charged with serious crimes and with lengthy criminal histories continue to be released and supervised on taxpayer funds.  Many of them were released and supervised under the county’s home confinement program.

Two internal investigations that focused on the actions and practices of the home confinement program, found that there were numerous violations of the jail’s policies and procedures.  Practices within the home confinement program were accepted and/or condoned by the unit supervisor, all of which failed to address various warning flags.  During and after the investigations, top Corrections personnel resigned while others were given disciplinary action. 

The Orlando Sentinel reported that two years after the home confinement program began, the first review was in and it wasn’t good even then.  The program was implemented in 1989 as a cost-saving measure to free up jail bed space.  But the Orlando Sentinel’s 1991 report found that the home confinement program wasn’t following its own rules, monitoring was at times ineffective and defendants were placed on the program that should not have been.  

Over two decades later the same issues resurfaced - not following the program’s policies and procedures, improperly completed audits, an overall lack of compliance with the program and fear of privatization.

Yet taxpayers have continued to pay for the program. 

One of the recent scathing reports found that the home confinement supervisor, “At best created a level of acceptance in the eyes of her subordinate staff regarding the allowance of offenders to violate . . . at worst she may have even encouraged it.” 

Chief Judge Belvin Perry suspended the county’s privately run GPS monitoring program after a defendant charged with domestic violence and who was on GPS monitoring, allegedly shot another man in a park on Easter.  Wilfred Gregory shot the man in the head and ran; he cut off his monitor and the private GPS company failed to alert Apopka police to that fact allowing him time to get away.

Judge Perry stated that GPS monitoring, “Gives everyone a false sense of security when there is no security whatsoever.”  He also said there was a lack of personnel, procedures, oversight and law enforcement response to continue using the current private GPS providers.  

We agree with Judge Perry that significant changes need to be made to bring effective GPS monitoring back.  All monitoring methods need to be effective.  Direct oversight, legislative solutions and policies for who can and should be monitored are all important elements.
Importance of Commercial Bail

Florida Statute §903.046 lays out the purpose of bail in criminal proceedings, which is to ensure the appearance of the defendant at subsequent court proceedings and to protect the community against unreasonable danger from the criminal defendant.  Bail agents have played this critical role in our criminal justice system for centuries.  Bail agents are heavily licensed and regulated by state Departments of Insurance and must be underwritten by a surety company.  Bail agents are financially responsible for defendants released on bail and use no taxpayer money.

We guarantee the appearance of the defendant in court.  A defendant can’t ignore us or his/her compliance with the bail contract or they go back to jail.  A defendant can’t, “cut us off” like they can a GPS monitor because we know where to find them.  If there is a "false alert," we can often facilitate corrective action with the courts.  Our limitations are few but our responsibility great.  We have arrest powers and will and do use them - even when the time limit to recoup any of our money has passed.  It is the principle of the bail contract and its accountability.

We are the most accountable system to taxpayers and the courts.

Many states have pre-determined bail schedules depending on the specific crime.  If a defendant doesn’t obtain release by paying bail immediately after booking, a judge may make a bail decision at a separate hearing known as a “first appearance hearing.”  In making a bail decision, the judge must consider the seriousness of the alleged crime committed, the defendant’s prior criminal history, their danger to the community if released and ties to family, employment and the community.

Defendants released on a commercial bail bond must pay a bail agent a small non-refundable fee, usually ten percent of the total bond, to cover the risk and associated monitoring of that defendant.  Bail agents utilize third-party indemnitors on the bond who are an added incentive for the defendant to appear at all required court hearings and refrain from any criminal activity or the indemnitor could lose collateral they have pledged for the defendant.  Bail agents take detailed information on the defendant to ascertain their risk level and what safeguards need to be added to the bail contract for release.

For higher risk defendants, GPS monitoring can be another effective layer of supervision on top of supervision through a bail agent.  Both the GPS monitoring company and the bail agent should work closely together to ensure accountability of the defendant and safety of the community.  In some instances, judges will set a higher bond for defendants charged with more serious crimes as should be the case. 

The commercial bail industry will continue to seek ways to be part of the solution in using limited tax dollars wisely while working with criminal justice partners to enhance public safety.  As the Chief Assistant Public Defender stated recently, “We do need to find another way to do it.  GPS is not the problem.  The vendor is the problem.”

Let a centuries-old “vendor” continue their effective and efficient methods for ensuring accountability in our criminal justice system.  Engage the commercial bail industry in future discussions for win-win scenarios. 

We all benefit in the end.