Community

Electronic Home Monitoring

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

When considering reforms to our local criminal justice system, three questions must be answered: are we reducing victimization, do we save taxpayer costs to systems and are we transforming or helping to stabilize the lives of people who enter the system? When it comes to Bellingham’s Electronic Home Monitoring program, we are doing all three.

The program, now halfway into its second year, is part of our response to jail booking and housing restrictions imposed by the Sheriff. Starting over a year ago, Whatcom County jail began restricting Bellingham Police Department’s ability to book and detain its misdemeanant defendants and offenders when certain conditions arise, forcing the City to get creative on how it would deal with low-level, nonviolent offenses. We had to come up with something else, and we did.

Bellingham contracts with a non-profit called Friendship Diversion Services to provide GPS and alcohol-detecting ankle bracelets for both pre-trial defendants and convicted offenders. Unlike the older and less reliable units used by the County, Bellingham’s devices use up-to-date technology that easily thwarts attempts to block detection for the alcohol units. Perhaps the most interesting attempt was the use of chicken skin in between the defendant and the device. It didn’t work. If a person is restricted or trespassed from an address and attempts to violate that order, Friendship Diversion Services can contact the wearer of the GPS bracelet via a speaker and microphone built into the device. If they continue to violate the order, a 160-decibel siren is activated and police are called in.

But this has happened to only one individual in the 18 months of operations. The people that are in the program are carefully screened through a risk-assessment procedure. Nonviolent defendants and offenders can qualify for the program—while keeping their jobs and housing or staying in school. But they are still technically and literally in custody 24/7 in their homes, required to report all trips ahead of time to the court, including those to the grocery store, work, daycare, drug treatment, attorney and probation appointments outside their residences—the “Home” part of their detention. Conversely, if they are sent to jail, the risk of losing housing becomes very real, adding to the already growing numbers of people experiencing homelessness.  

When we look at system costs, Electronic Home Monitoring makes sense—instead of paying $108 a day to house a person in the County jail, the City pays a fraction of that—$14.50—to hold people in custody, but while they are in the community. We saved over $690,000 in taxpayer dollars in the last 18 months and cut our jail population by more than 20 percent. And savings happen in non-monetary forms. Having a parent go to jail can create an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) for a child in the household. Reducing ACEs is regarded by leading social scientists as a way to help build resilient, healthy kids.

Of the 362 defendants on Electronic Home Monitoring during the last 18 months, only seven are currently on warrants for not following through with their sentences, a success rate of 98 percent. Programs like Electronic Home Monitoring and Ground Level Response and Coordinated Engagement (GRACE) clearly have impacts not only on the jail population, but also the safety of our community and the lives of those in the criminal justice system.

Dan Hammill is the Ward 3 representative on Bellingham City Council since December 2014 and a member of the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force. He serves on the Behavioral Health Committee and served on the Legal and Justice Committee. He can be
reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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