GPS lets law’s long arm grow
Colorado Gazzette | December 6, 2004
Greg Bendon has a new job title: Big Brother. All day, every day.
He follows his people everywhere, recording each step they take, timing how long they linger in places they’re not supposed to be.
“We’re tracking you every single minute. Big Brother is watching you,” said Bendon, who works for ComCor Inc., a nonprofit group that offers programs to rehabilitate criminals.
ComCor recently introduced technology that allows it to peer via satellite into a criminal’s life.
Authorities looking to deal with jail overcrowding hope the Global Positioning System satellite technology — considered more sophisticated than traditional radio frequency monitoring — will convince judges it’s a reliable way to control people and free up jail beds.
“Our goal is to get judges to experiment with it, for the lack of a better word,” said Henry Sontheimer, an El Paso County criminal justice planner.
Judges sentence criminals to electronic monitoring, but not often.
El Paso County Court judges sentenced 395 people to electronic monitoring in 2003, according to a report Sontheimer prepared for the Justice Advisory Council of the Pikes Peak region. Those sentences accounted for about 1 percent of traffic and misdemeanor cases resolved that year.
Offenders sentenced to electronic monitoring last year spent 29,582 days in the program. If they spent those days in jail instead, taxpayers would have spent more than $1.7 million, according to Sontheimer’s report.
Many inmates probably would be good candidates for monitoring, Sontheimer said.
Fifteen percent to 20 percent of the inmates are in jail because of charges related to driving while drunk or on drugs, or driving under revocation.
“We don’t want to beat judges over the head and say, ‘You’re using jail too much,’” Sontheimer said. “That’s not our goal.”
But monitoring, whether by satellite or radio frequency, gives judges another alternative to jail or probation.
El Paso County judges send defendants who qualify for electronic monitoring to two service companies: BI Inc. and ComCor Inc. Both have GPS capabilities, although BI, which offers GPS monitoring elsewhere in the country, hasn’t introduced it in Colorado.
Instead, BI uses a radio frequency system with ankle bracelets to track offenders. About 120,000 offenders nationwide are on ankle bracelets, BI spokeswoman Monica Hook said.
In El Paso County, BI handles about 12 offenders a day, most of them arrested for drunken driving, shoplifting, driving without insurance or other such charges.
The number of criminals they receive from the county courts has remained constant — about seven people on any given day, BI state director Stacie Moore said.
On the radio frequency system, a device is installed in the offender’s home that detects whether the person is nearby. When he or she leaves the house, that information is recorded.
For the most part, offenders do well on electronic monitoring. About 3 percent to 5 percent fail the program, BI case manager Chad Tuttle said.
In October, ComCor unveiled its GPS tracking system, which keeps offenders under continuous surveillance.
The system can’t observe the person moving about the city in “real time,” but the person’s movements can be downloaded later.
Each person has “exclusion” zones such as a victim’s home. If the person enters the zone, the device beeps and flashes a warning: “Vacate now.” It also records how long they stay in the zone and how fast they leave. “We literally track them everywhere they go,” ComCor correctional supervisor Rex Ramsey said.
ComCor has used a GPS system for about a year, but it didn’t allow the agency to check on the person’s movements repeatedly throughout the day.
The GPS technology has improved, so the devices are easier to wear and less obvious, said El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, who visited ComCor recently to learn more about the technology.
“The level of accountability is far greater because you know where they’ve been,” he said.
The cost to taxpayers of keeping inmates in jail compared with putting them on monitoring is significant.
It costs about $58 a day to keep someone behind bars but nothing to keep them on monitoring.
Instead, the inmate must pay the full cost of monitoring, which ranges from $3 to $5 a day for radio frequency monitoring to about $11 for GPS monitoring.
Few offenders sentenced to ComCor are on GPS monitors, Ramsey said.
So far, the only ComCor clients to wear them are eight sex offenders who live together in a residential program but can leave their residence to go to work.
Like his BI counterparts, Ramsey said he hasn’t seen the number of county court clients sentenced to electronic monitoring increase in the past several years.
Electronic monitoring not only helps alleviate jail crowding, but also allows people to keep their jobs and continue supporting their families, Sontheimer said.