GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Keeping watch
In 1992, Rennselaer County, N.Y., built a 235-bed jail to replace an aging 150-bed facility, end jail overcrowding and make money by housing inmates from other jurisdictions. Eleven years later, the jail is bursting with local offenders, and the county pays almost $1 million annually to house excess inmates elsewhere.
Local officials nationwide face similar scenarios. Last year, the nation’s jail and prison population topped 2 million inmates. Jails saw the biggest increase in inmates, as 34,235 more offenders were housed in the local facilities when compared with 2001. Overcrowding problems are the result.
At the same time, local governments are under financial pressure as state and federal funds are trimmed, leaving local officials to look for alternatives that can maintain public safety while saving money. To balance those needs, many cities and counties are combining technology with community-based super-vision programs for low-risk, nonviolent offenders.
As one alternative to the overcrowding jails, public safety agencies are releasing low-risk offenders under the supervision of radio-frequency electronic monitoring systems that verify offenders’ compliance to court- or agency-prescribed conditions of release. Specifically, the systems verify the presence of an offender at a specified location, typically his or her home. The system consists of a transmitter attached to the offender, a field-monitoring device installed in the offender’s home and a host computer that records daily activity. Monitoring specialists review activity 24 hours a day and notify officials if an offender is not in compliance.
The Lafourche Parish, La., Sheriff’s Office initiated an electronic monitoring program to avoid overcrowding at a 173-bed detention center. The office passes the cost of the electronic monitoring equipment to the offenders, allowing the office to supervise them at no cost to taxpayers. In 2002, 181 offenders were monitored electronically, resulting in 6,600 detention center days avoided. Considering that it costs almost $25 per day to incarcerate an offender in the detention center, the parish saved approximately $165,000 last year.
Community corrections programs also are installing biometric systems that use biological traits of a person’s body — such as a voice, a fingerprint or a retina — as unmistakable identifiers. For instance, voice verification systems confirm a person’s identity by matching the characteristics of a person’s voice with a digital recording of it. The technology improves the number of accurate contacts that can be made with supervised offenders over the telephone.
The Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization, found that recidivism can be lowered when inmates released from jail receive effective supervision, treatment and training. However, with city, county and state budgets dwindling and jails bursting, the knee-jerk reaction is to cut funding to programs — including community-based super-vision and treatment — and hope for the best.
Alternatively, cities and counties can save money by using corrections programs that monitor offenders outside jails with the help of technology and provide treatment and training to help cut recidivism. Those alternatives are helping to strike a balance between community safety and public spending.
The author is vice president for Boulder, Colo.-based BI.