Home Alone

Electronic home detention is the latest rage in criminal justice. There's no doubt that it's cheaper than jail, but is the public's safety at risk?

IN THE JUSTICE system, it's called EHD, electronic home detention, a high-tech version of house arrest, and Tramaine D. Lampkin was on it when he shot up a Seattle neighborhood last fall.

The 21-year-old coke dealer with a criminal record that includes drug use, burglary, and escape from jail was released to electronic detention by a King County Superior Court judge in September.

At his Burien-area apartment, an electronic bracelet was clamped to his ankle and a signal box installed that allowed a private monitoring company to detect whether he strayed from a prescribed schedule.

By law, Lampkin may not have been qualified for EHD, since drug offenders are generally excluded from the program that primarily serves minor lawbreakers and unlicensed and drunk drivers.

Surely he must have disqualified himself, though, while on home detention. In December, Lampkin fired a series of shots at two men in a car in the University District and shot twice at another man running down a street, say police, who were called by neighbors, not the monitoring firm.

But where did another judge decide the best place for Lampkin was? Released back to EHD, back with the same monitoring company, back to the same home where he'd apparently be free to do it all again.

Judges and budget-cutting bureaucrats laud EHD and are reluctant to concede that it has problems. But corrections officials are worried that Lampkin and other high-level offenders are slipping through the cracks in a home-detention network that is headed for trouble.

The biggest fissures, they say, run from the courtroom through the monitoring agencies entrusted to watch Big Brother-like from control centers thousands of miles away.

As a result, dangerous offenders are increasingly being released by judges to home detention, say critics, who think the courts are failing in their oversight role as well.

Some doubters are also concerned that the savings, even the profit, from EHD may be trumping public safety. Cash-strapped cities and counties can save and earn significant amounts of money by sending lawbreakers to electronic detention rather than jail, avoiding daily incarceration costs of up to $80 per prisoner. Offenders, in turn, pay for the privilege of EHD—as much as $40 a day.

BY SOME COUNTS, electronic monitoring has become the sentence of choice. As many as seven out of 10 U.S. offenders today serve time in our neighborhoods rather than our jails. That includes at least 1,000 annually in King County and 6,000 more statewide.

Though it's a valuable alternative- sentencing tool, EHD's limitations are becoming "starkly apparent," says Rex Smith, a criminal-justice expert and head of the American Justice Institute in Maryland. "Serious concerns for the public safety" are developing around the country, he says, with good reason.

Two years ago in Bremerton, for example, Darin Powell, an electronic home detainee with an extensive record that included assault and obstruction, beat another man to death at Powell's home (to avoid setting off a monitoring alert by leaving, Powell had friends dump the body elsewhere).

Though electronic monitoring is popularly viewed as a way to monitor low-level lawbreakers, it is also used to watch over murderers and rapists these days. The Washington state Department of Corrections employs the method to track felons who have served most of their prison time and have agreed to electronic monitoring as a condition of parole. Two convicted murderers were among several dozen parolees allowed in the program last year. The "enhanced sentences" are intended to free up prison space and provide some oversight before a felon is released outright, officials say.

Such monitoring may raise false hopes, however. Serial rapist Joe Aqui was paroled from the state's sex-offender unit under conditions that included electronic monitoring and orders not to have contact with women other than family members. He had two consensual affairs—one with a woman from his church—and was returned to prison last year. He has since been released, again under a monitoring order. But, almost as if to say the monitoring was pointless, a King County judge this time required Aqui to always have an escort when he leaves his home and to submit to pop lie detector tests.

Local court-system workers worry that monitoring isn't always the answer and is too often the problem. Judicial errors and the unchecked growth of home detention could lead to serious, even fatal, mistakes, they say. "There's this sense that it's only a matter of time," observes a veteran King County parole officer.

He and others believe some county judges are stretching EHD criteria because they are under pressure to relieve jail costs and crowding in the midst of King County's budget crisis. Parole workers cite such recent examples as an angry man who earned home detention after breaking into his former girlfriend's home and punching and robbing her, and an offender who was sent home even though his arrest and court record is a half-dozen pages long dating to 1986.

"There are strict guidelines for authorities to follow for release to EHD," says a King County corrections official. "But it has become arbitrary, and many of these placements just blow me away."

EHD HAS BEEN in popular use for years, but a relatively new state law mandating more home monitoring for some drunk drivers has caused a recent boomlet. "Home monitoring just took off, so to speak, with that new law," says Jim Harms, a King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) spokesperson.

Under the tough 1999 DUI statute, every city and county in the state must provide home monitoring as an alternative sentence, either through its own operation or by contracting with a private vendor.

In King County alone, several dozen agencies offer EHD; most handle their own intake services and contract for the monitoring. While the county and Seattle have sizable operations, so do suburban cities such as Renton and Bellevue (in 2000, Bellevue served 356 offenders from throughout the Puget Sound area, most of them sentenced for driving without a license).

Parole officials say that some jurisdictions have a reputation for taking riskier offenders than others. As a result, they say, EHD has become a mass market of competing brokers and services, prompting some offenders to go "shopping" for a monitor that will get them out of jail.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. "It was never the legislative intent [for offenders] to shop around for the least expensive and least restrictive program," says Linda McHenry, assistant director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC), the state's biggest monitoring agency.

As it turns out, it's now the monitoring agencies—public and private—that ultimately decide who goes home and who goes to jail. Once a judge approves EHD, the agencies independently choose which offenders get into their programs (similar to the way a bail bondsman decides on which clients to risk his bail guarantee). "The courts can recommend an offender to the program," explains the county's Jim Harms, "but we make the [final] decision, based upon established criteria, whether he or she is eligible."

Courts are supposed to review the agencies' decisions and even ask for an explanation when they turn down a would-be client. But that apparently doesn't happen with much regularity.

"At a certain point in the process," says Steve Hopkins of privately owned Stay Home Monitoring Inc., "the court says, 'We know you, we know what kind of home monitoring you're doing; you don't have to get permission every time you put someone on the program.'"

Lackadaisical oversight is one of the reasons the system has its breakdowns, say King County parole officials. They cite the Lampkin case as a dramatic example.

CONVICTED OF SELLING $20 rocks of cocaine at a West Seattle bus shelter, Lampkin was ordered to remain at his residence except for during prescribed hours.

Like the typical electronic detainee, he was shackled with an ankle bracelet that sends radio waves to a VCR-sized box, for which he paid $10 a day (if cut off, the bracelet triggers an alert to the monitoring service). The electronic base, called a receiver/dialer, connects to a telephone line and, ultimately, to a monitoring agency.

(EHD is not to be confused with electronic beeper home detention or simple telephonic home detention, which require detainees to answer random phone checks from a computer and which have their own problems. The most tragic example: Michael Busby, 8, of Bellingham, was allegedly murdered on April 18 by Ryan Alexander, 16, who was on telephonic home detention as part of his sentence for two juvenile felonies.)

The receiver/dialer sends telephonic signals to a control center, reporting when a detainee leaves and returns, any curfew violations, and the status of the monitoring equipment. The control center is typically thousands of miles away, operated by one of many private companies that contract with local jurisdictions. The city of Seattle, for example, with 200 offenders on home detention annually, and the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, with 300 offenders hooked up each year, both contract with a Colorado company, BI Inc., whose monitoring center is in Indiana.

Lampkin, however, went a different route. After getting the court's OK, he signed up directly with Stay Home Monitoring, which claims to be the biggest private monitoring service in the state. Its regional office is in Montesano, Grays Harbor County, and its nationwide monitoring center is in Minnesota.

Typically, electronic reports sent to a control center from a detainee's ankle bracelet are downloaded every few hours. Commonly, there is no immediate response when the offender "escapes" from his home or routine (local monitoring agencies are notified by their national centers via fax). In some cases, the response may be a phone call to the offender or a drop-in visit by an agent. Police may sometimes be called. Stay Home has "an agent in Seattle," says Hopkins, the owner of its state franchise. Courts are often notified by mail.

At its heart, the system relies on the honor of offenders.

"Well, detainees have to follow the rules, because they know what the alternative is," maintains Hopkins, whose company last month was watching over 138 home detainees in Western Washington. "They end up doing hard time."

Stay Home couldn't make Lampkin stay home, however. With no one watching him closely, Lampkin was free to (1) obtain a gun and (2) use it. On Dec. 8, 2001, at around 2:30 p.m., he was observed by four witnesses running through a church parking lot in the U District firing shots at a car occupied by several men.

According to police and court documents, four people living in the area of the 5000 block of 16th Avenue Northeast saw Lampkin "carrying what they believed to be a firearm," police reported. "The witnesses saw Lampkin running in the church parking lot [and saw him] fire several shots at a vehicle occupied by unknown males." They saw Lampkin then run back to 16th and fire two shots at another man. "All four witnesses positively identified Lampkin as the shooter after he was stopped by officers. . . . "

Was anyone wounded, fatally or otherwise? No one seemed to know. The victims, whoever they were, ran off. None came forward when police arrived. "It is unknown whether Lampkin injured or killed anyone he shot at," the police reported. "He also had a court-ordered ankle monitoring device to keep him at home, but it clearly hasn't worked." Lampkin was returned to jail—on a gun violation.

It was surprising to some that Lampkin was ever allowed to enter the home detention program. He'd been sentenced to a year in jail for conspiracy to commit drug sales, and the home detention law states that "any drug offense" should disqualify an offender from the alternative sentence.

Also, during the early part of his jail term at the North Rehabilitation Facility, Lampkin was three hours late from work release one day (and refused a drug test) and escaped for several hours on another day, according to corrections officials, thus losing his accumulated good time.

Nonetheless, King County Superior Court Judge Deborah Fleck first granted Lampkin home detention on Sept. 19, after he'd served 199 days in custody.

When Lampkin was brought in on the gun charge in December, he was also hit with a felony probation-violation hold. His attorney convinced pro tem Superior Court Judge Julia Lawton Garratt to strike the probation hearing, however, probably saving Lampkin from additional time on his jail term.

At the same time, Garratt granted Lampkin permission to return to home detention.

She conditioned the return on whether the monitoring company would take him back. It wouldn't.

"His actions made him too much a risk," says Stay Home's Hopkins. Nonetheless, "We have taken violent criminals," Hopkins says. "That's on a case-by-case basis." Lampkin finished his term in jail and was released in February.

Garratt says she does not recall the case, one of many she handled on a busy day, and Fleck chose not to speak on the record. Presiding Judge Richard Eadie of King County Superior Courts was unaware of the situation.

A court spokesperson says judges are allowed discretion in handing down their sentencing orders. While the reasons behind Lampkin's second home release were unclear, the spokesperson says Garratt may not have seen the information that Lampkin had wielded the gun (though it was in a court file recently reviewed by Seattle Weekly).

While other judges wouldn't comment directly on that case, some suggest that the use of EHD has become a crutch for an overburdened judicial system.

King County District Court Judge David Steiner thinks a work-crew program "is more effective than electronic home detention" and wants to see that expanded. Presiding District Court Judge Wesley Saint Clair agrees that the work-crew program, in its pilot stages, "appeared to be very effective. The plan now is to expand that program some and to then examine its effect." Another alternative is a day-reporting center, to open in July with 25 slots.

"The day-reporting program," says Saint Clair, will include "drug and alcohol assessments, domestic violence treatment, anger management, life skills presentations, maybe even outside efforts such as GED." In essence, it will assist offenders who must come in for regularly scheduled daily meetings.

That's far more than EHD offers, says Kutztown (Pa.) University professor Marc Renzema, an electronic monitoring authority. "The evidence of post-EHD behavior change is nil," he says emphatically. "There's some evidence it can suppress criminal behavior for the duration [of the sentence], and that may be enough to justify its use as an alternative."

The local EHD program that draws the most praise is King County's. Screening, acceptance, and monitoring alerts are handled by the Work Education and Release Unit in the King County Courthouse. Someone is around 24 hours a day to receive faxed alerts from BI Inc., which claims 70 percent of the U.S. home monitoring market and has dozens of local government clients (the county also contracts with WASPC for some of its monitoring). King County's staff includes several administrators, corrections officers, a technician, and seven caseworkers.

Of 294 home detainees last year from the county's court system as well as several local jurisdictions, just 23 failed to finish their sentence, says DAJD spokesperson Harms. "We have a very, very strict policy," he says. "Besides the statutory requirements under state law, we also have an administrative review of our own on who gets in the program and who doesn't."

WHILE KING County's program is well staffed, the bottom-line focus of other EHD agencies certainly raises some concerns. EHD is clearly cheaper than jail, and offenders are happy to have the home detention option, even though costs can be prohibitive to some (depending on severity of violations and a compounding of sentences in some cases, DUI offenders can be on home detention for three to six months).

Generally, offenders pay a minimum $10 to $15 a day for services. If alcohol is involved, an additional $5 or more daily is required to rent a Sobrietor, a device that measures the user's breath-alcohol content (it has a voice ID system for security).

"The most critical decision" in determining whether to use home detention, says expert Rex Smith, "is made by the judge or paroling authority, or in some cases the institution itself, on whether the person is a reasonable risk to the community." Nobody, including a private agency, should base that decision on "either a profit motive or to keep a program full and operating," he warns.

Profit does, of course, drive the industry. WASPC is Washington's 800-pound gorilla. Assistant director McHenry says frankly, "We wouldn't do it if we weren't making a profit."

As the largest single monitoring agency in the state (a broker, actually, since it contracts with a California company for the monitoring), WASPC provides EHD services mostly to smaller towns and counties.

Altogether last year, WASPC monitored 5,638 offenders (typically white adult males) in more than 80 jurisdictions. Most were drunk drivers (1,547) and traffic violators (968) sentenced by local courts.

Savings, if not profit, is a major selling point in WASPC's promotional material. Here's how it touts the home-monitoring success of the city of Olympia to potential customers:

"Olympia estimates that by comparing the cost of jail in Yakima ($51 per day), the savings to the city is $313,000, and if the value is based on the Olympia jail ($78 per day), the savings value would be $478,000. In addition, Olympia estimates that they will make over $120,000 on their EHD program in 2001."

Adds WASPC: "It's easy to see why this is a very popular program in Olympia."

Stay Home's Hopkins says that for some more than others, profit's the thing. "There are some government agencies out there trying to make money out of home monitoring, sure. I mean, if I can charge 30 to 40 percent less a day than they are and still make a profit, there's some teeth in that complaint."

That's not necessarily a negative, says consultant Rex Smith, as long as the system is safe. But he warns, "A competitor's marketing strategy may be to advertise the lowest rates in town to gain an edge with offender clients [but] just how does 'the lowest rates in town' translate? The old adage about getting what we pay for may not be far off."


comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow