By Gordon Hopkins
Beginning in June of this year, Jefferson County has implemented a new Pretrial Release Program, which will use a combination of drug-testing and ankle monitors to keep track of defendants, rather than keeping them incarcerated. The benefits of the new program are two-fold. First, it will allow defendants to continue working, and seek drug and alcohol treatment if necessary, while awaiting court appearances. Secondly, it will provide some relief to the budgets of the Court System and Sheriff’s Office.
Don Cook, Director of Jefferson County Diversion Services, has this to say, “One reason is, if someone goes to jail, if they make a mistake and end up in jail, they lose their jobs. When people lose their jobs, they can’t pay child support. They can’t support their families. They can’t buy groceries. So if we can’t get them out on a Pretrial Release through the courts, then they can go to work. They can do their jobs. They can support their families and pay child support. They may have an ankle monitor on, but they can still work and they’re not sitting in the jail.”
It is the hope that, by avoiding some defendants losing their employment, they can also avoid falling further into the criminal system.
Pretrial release currently consists of drug testing done through Diversion Services and ankle monitors. Eligibility for Pretrial Release will be decided by the court. Some defendants will be required to submit to random drug testing by Diversion Services. Others will be required to wear an ankle monitor to restrict their movements. Eligibility will depend on a variety of factors, including the types of charges and criminal history. The focus is on non-violent offenders.
Cook said of the future, “Eventually, we want to get to a point where we’re able to do more, such as evaluations. Our goal is to try and help the people who get hooked on drugs, that make the mistake of getting arrested, and still survive.”
The ankle monitors use GPS tracking to keep tabs on defendants. Depending on circumstances, defendants may be restricted to home, or home and work. They may also be allowed time to go in for drug testing or a grocery story, if necessary. If a defendant needs to leave home, to go to work or drug testing, etc., they will be given a certain amount of time to reach their destination.
“If a person is on house arrest, they still have to buy groceries if they live by themselves, so we have to allow time for them to go to the store, but they’re wearing the ankle monitor and we can see everywhere they go,” said Cook. “We have three satellites that are monitoring the ankle monitors at one time, plus cell towers. So it’s pretty high-tech stuff.
The actual monitoring is done from the Diversion office. Diversion staff will receive alerts if a defendant steps outside of boundaries set for him by the court, or if there is an attempt to remove or tamper with the monitor. If this should happen, Cook said of the procedure that follows, “We call the County Attorney, he calls the Sheriff’s Office, and they go arrest them.”
The defendant may then be charged with escape, or it may be considered a violation of bond.
Cook added, “There is a big penalty if they do tamper with it or cut it off.”
Some defendants in Jefferson County have already been placed on Pretrial Release, using an ankle monitor. Diversion Services also plans on using another type of mobile monitor for some defendants: a portable, handheld, breath-alcohol testing device. This device an be used to provide regular or random breath tests  no matter where the defendant may be. The device has GPS tracking capabilities, and will record the date, time and location of each test. The device uses facial recognition software and has a high-resolution camera built in, to prevent someone else from using the device. So a defendant won’t be able to have someone else take the test.
Incarceration can have a major impact on the Sheriff’s budget. Cook noted, “We pay a lot of money for people sitting in the jail every day. A lot of people don’t realize the fees that it takes to cover someone once they’re arrested. A good example of that, it costs $350 to $400 once their arrested, just to put them in through the process of going into the jail.”
After that, Cook estimates the cost to the county for keeping an inmate at the Jefferson County jail is $50 to $55 per day.
It is necessary for some inmates to be housed at other facilities. At a recent meeting of the Jefferson County Commissioners, Sheriff Sorensen pointed out that Jefferson County is required to pay for any inmates housed in other facilities. The Sheriff gave one example, “Dept. of Corrections is just at $90 a day, plus we have to pay all the medical up there. Then, also, they ding us about, between $250 and $350 just to do a medical screening when they come in.”
According to County Attorney Joseph Casson, the cost to the county for the operation of an ankle monitor used for house arrest is approximately four dollars a day, considerably less that the cost of housing a prisoner in either the local jail or a facility in another county. The County is charging defendants for the service. Cook said, “It costs the individual to wear the ankle monitor, and we require that they pay a week in advance, because we’re not a bank. We need to collect the funds for the services, but it still allows them to be out of jail. If somebody has a job, it’s well worth $7 a week to be able to support your family. It could be a little costly, but it’s still worth it in the long run.”