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Sullivan County considers house arrest for nonviolent inmates

February 17th, 2012 9:42 pm by J. H. Osborne

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson, District Attorney Barry Staubus and General Sessions Judge Ray Conkin, among others, got a glimpse Friday at how an electronic monitoring system could be used to track inmates ordered to serve sentences at home rather than in the county jail.

Anderson said the concept of house arrest — for nonviolent offenders — definitely has merit.

“Basically, we want to lessen the number of people in jail,” Anderson said. “So we’re trying to think of some kind of alternative sentencing. I think it would be a big help to us, and hopefully, to the whole county.”

Anderson noted county prosecutors and judges are in charge of sentencing decisions and options.

Staubus and Conkin appeared receptive to the concept, but both urged caution and care — and along with County Attorney Dan Street, gave Anderson and jail officials several questions to think about.

Those include developing protocols to deal with how to handle violations and development of a process to transfer any current inmates from jail sentences to enrollment in the house arrest program.

Anderson estimated about 60 current inmates would be candidates for transfer into such a program.

In an earlier discussion of the possible launch of such a program, Staubus said electronic monitoring — as explained in a presentation by a private company that produces the technology involved — is certainly something to talk about implementing locally.

Staubus said then that major factors would be development of a protocol for using the monitoring as an alternative to jail time, and that he would see it as needing to be developed with a target group in mind, a select group — and under certain circumstances.

Anderson said having some offenders sentenced to house arrest would reduce crowding at the county jail (built to hold about 625, earlier this week it held 764 inmates) and save county taxpayers money.

Anderson said it costs the county, on average, $42.21 per day to keep someone in the county jail.

The electronic monitoring equipment could be leased for $4.75 per day, according to the presentation Anderson, Staubus and the others saw Friday from Satellite Tracking of People (STOP) — a Texas-based company that serves hundreds of state and local corrections agencies across the nation, including the state of Tennessee.

Anderson said he thinks offenders sentenced to the program — which he said many would themselves prefer to jail time — should pay the cost, whatever it is, but noted the issue already has been raised that some offenders might not have the money.

Jason Gilbert, regional sales manager for the company, said STOP won the contract to provide monitoring for the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole and provides the service to countless cities and counties nationwide.

STOP is the patent holder and developer of “BluTag,” the original one-piece GPS tracking device.

“We invented it,” said Gilbert, noting all STOP’s equipment is manufactured in the United States.

Those sent to serve their sentences at home — and in some cases allowed to work or attend 12-step recovery meetings — are tracked by electronic monitoring bracelets attached around their ankles.

The ankle bracelets have GPS, cellular phone tracking and radio frequency capabilities.

Monitoring protocols can be customized to each “enrollee” in the program, Gilbert said — using a projected computer screen to demonstrate how parameters can be changed for “inclusion” boundaries (where the offender is allowed or expected to be), “exclusion” boundaries (where the offender is prohibited to be), and for identifying the offender by a risk category such as “low” or “high.”

STOP’s system also can be used to monitor the movements of someone who has an order of protection to stay away from another person. The person they are prohibited from approaching is given a similar device (to carry), which alerts them if the boundary is crossed.

Conkin said he sees that facet of the program as holding great potential for pre-trial use — where the courts could make such monitoring a condition for bond in some domestic abuse cases.

Anderson said having some inmates serve time at home would reduce how much money the county spends on daily operations (such as food) and medical and dental services for inmates.

The jail’s budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30 is about $7.78 million. During the county’s prior full budget year, more than $550,000 of the jail’s budget went to cover medical and dental treatment for inmates and drugs and medical supplies. Another $610,000 was spent for food.

Late last summer, Anderson said his department had reviewed inmate information and determined that out of about 700 inmates at that time, only 10 or so had any health care insurance.

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