GPS tethers gain popularity as alternative to jail


GPS tethers gain popularity as alternative to jail

January 20, 2011

As municipalities nationwide struggle to slash expenses and balance their budgets in the tough economy, communities are left with fewer available beds in their county jails and state prisons -- a fact that has law enforcement officials turning to cost-saving GPS tethers in record numbers.

Local agencies and national experts say that the tethers -- which track suspected and convicted criminals' whereabouts via global positioning satellite signals -- are expected to become even more prevalent in coming years.

"The budget crisis creates an incentive to expand a relatively small program," said Paul Taylor, chief strategy officer with the Center for Digital Government, a national research and advisory institute on information technology policies.

"In this economy, you can't just hire more officers, build more jails and have more beds."

The boom already is apparent in metro Detroit, especially in Wayne County, which last year expanded its tether program to include persons charged with nonviolent felonies. Previously, county-issued tethers were available only to those charged with misdemeanors.

That change led to the number of defendants monitored by GPS to nearly triple, from 163 to 450, between Oct. 1, 2007, and Oct. 1 this year.

"These allow courts to look into options other than traditional incarceration," said Lt. Pat Owen, who oversees the Wayne County Sheriff's program. "This provides an added level of enforcement."

They also save municipalities big bucks: While housing an inmate in the Wayne County Jail costs $121 a day, the tether costs $12 a day to lease. And while 15 officers are needed to run a jail floor with 128 inmates, just three officers can monitor as many people on tethers.

"And then you have no medical costs, no feeding, no physical plant," Owen said.

Like Wayne County, Oakland and Macomb counties are slowly expanding their programs, though officials in each area said they still have fewer than 100 defendants on tether at a time.

Oakland County recently extended its tether program through fiscal year 2009 at a cost of $300,000, Undersheriff Mike McCabe said.

Technology is effective
While tethers in some form have been used for more than two decades, the technology has shifted. Instead of tether wearers having to be home and near a phone line at certain hours, their movements are tracked in real time.

The tether tattles if someone gets too close to a complainant, violates judge-imposed curfews or tries to tamper with or remove the device.

The tethers are used both pre- and post-conviction. At the county level, judges can order suspects to wear them as a condition of their release on bond. State departments of corrections, meanwhile, order parolees to wear them.

Judge Richard Caretti, chief of Macomb County Circuit Court, said judges are becoming more comfortable releasing defendants on the tethers.

"The technology has proven effective," said Caretti, whose county is so strapped for jail beds that judges take part in a jail bed allocation program that limits the number of defendants each judge can send to the county jail.

But Caretti said that though the devices are effective, most judges will steer clear of putting risky people on tether.

"Its use is limited to a certain type of case," he said. "The tethers are a very useful tool in situations where you have concerns that the defendant may be at risk for contacting a complainant."

Judges also have to balance a defendant's right to a reasonable bail with public safety, he said.

"So you set a bail that's reasonable and then impose conditions to protect the complainant and the public, and GPS tethers seem to work," he said.

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