Most important - is a known, serious public safety problem being swept under the rug locally? WE Editors
Electronic Home Monitoring: Who's watching the inmates?
The Olympia Report - 9/18/13
by Jeff Rhodes
First of a three-part series
In late 2009, Whatcom County deputies arrested Robert Inda on a car theft charge on the campus Western Washington University.
Described by local law enforcement authorities as a “prolific burglar and car prowler,” there was seemingly nothing out of the ordinary about his latest alleged offense — except that, during the booking process, jail officials discovered Inda was wearing an ankle bracelet, signifying he was already out on bail awaiting sentencing on an unrelated charge.
But why weren’t authorities notified he was on the loose? Or were they?
According to an investigation by the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation, it turns out Inda’s case is far from isolated. In fact, thanks largely to electronic home monitoring standards that vary wildly from county to county and even city to city, there’s reason to believe hundreds — and maybe thousands — of potentially dangerous offenders could be roaming Washington’s streets when they’re supposed to be confined to their homes.
“We called literally every county in the state, and every one handles electronic home monitoring a little differently,” said Freedom Foundation Property Rights Manager Glen Morgan. “How it works — if it works — is entirely a matter of where the offense occurred, who imposes the sentence and who winds up monitoring the offender in question.”
As is the case virtually everywhere in Washington, electronic home monitoring (EHM) is an increasingly popular alternative in Whatcom County to incarceration due to chronic overcrowding at the county’s jail. The beauty of the system is that, rather than warehousing inmates in an expensive, taxpayer-funded cage, they are sent home with orders to wear a GPS-equipped bracelet on their ankle that prevents them from moving without setting off an alarm.
Even better, the cost of the monitoring service is paid by the offender, once he or she is approved for that option.
“I found one guy who was on home supervision for an entire year but never even plugged his box in,” he said “And yet his record was falsified to make it look like he’d complied with the court order when he hadn’t. You might just as well let everyone walk right out the back door of the jail the minute they’re arrested.”
Most shockingly of all, Murphy said many of the unexcused absences from custody are the result of bribery and corruption rather than administrative incompetence.
“It’s called ‘buying time off the clock,’ ” Murphy said. “And it goes on all the time.”
Murphy said he first became aware of the practice in 2007, when he made an arrest in connection with the theft of a large forklift from a local construction site.
“The suspect had been around,” he said, “and he knew that if he had information to trade, it could reduce his sentence. So he started to tell me this story about electronic home monitoring and how it’s easy to beat the system if you know how.”
The flaw in the system is that, contrary to general perception, it isn’t always a law enforcement agency that gets the call when an EHM client turns up missing. In many cases, it’s his or her bail bondsman — who may or may not have an incentive to report the incident.
Whatcom County, like most other counties in Washington, contracts with Boulder, Colo.-based Behavioral Interventions (BI), Inc., to monitor its ankle bracelet signals. If the defendant tries to cut the device off or simply strays too far from his or her home address, a signal is sent to BI, which notifies the appropriate jurisdiction.
In some counties, that could be the sheriff’s office, someone at the county jail or the probation office. Or it could be the bondsman who put up the money to guarantee the defendant would appear in court.
Electronic home monitoring is used in both the pre-trial phase — in conjunction with bail — and post-trial, as an alternative to jail. And in some cases, there are private companies, including at least one nonprofit agency, who bid for the contract to monitor a county’s defendants.
As far as anyone can determine, there are no minimum professional standards a company must meet in order to be considered. The are extensive state guidelines dictating which prisoners are eligible for home monitoring, but none for the monitors themselves.
“Every jurisdiction handles things a little differently,” said David Regan, owner of Regan Bail Bonds in Vancouver and vice present of the Washington State Bail Agents Association. “It’s up to the court who gets home monitoring, and after that, who does the actual monitoring.”
Regan said he knows of a handful of bond companies around the state who require ankle bracelets on high-risk, high-bail clients even without the court’s say so. He said he isn’t aware of any counties in which the bond agent is the first to be contacted when the defendant flees, but he said the practice makes sense from the bondsman’s perspective.
“The bail bondsman and the court work hand-in-hand,” he said. “The goal of both is to ensure the accused shows up in court, and the bondsman has a big investment in making sure he or she does. It’s entirely appropriate the person holding the bond be notified immediately if they try to run away.”
Snaza said he keeps the procedure in-house because “it’s important to me,” but he doesn’t blame other jurisdictions that outsource their monitoring.
“It’s a lot cheaper than keeping people locked up in jail,” he said. “I know everyone’s dealing with budget problems these days, and I wouldn’t be in favor of anything that takes away their flexibility to serve their community as they see fit. What works for us here might not work somewhere else.”
In Whatcom County, Murphy said, defendants are given a choice as to whether they will be monitored by local law enforcement or a private bail bondsman. Since the private company is invariably a few dollars cheaper, most choose that option.
According to Murphy, choosing a private company can also have added benefits for the career criminal. All too often, the client can “buy time off the clock” by offering the bondsman cash, drugs or any other inducement.
During the course of his investigation, Murphy said he went to a grand jury and a subpoenaed BI’s records. Ultimately, he discovered hundreds of cases where BI had notified a bond company one of its prisoners was unaccounted for but the company neglected to advise law enforcement.
“It’s an epidemic,” Murphy said. “I’m sure the vast majority of people on home monitoring follow instructions and stay put. But they’re not the ones you have to worry about. It’s the habitual offenders.”
Murphy said although most of the irregularities were traced back to one particular bondsman, there were discrepancies noted at a number of different companies in Whatcom County.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” he said. “But as I dug deeper into it, I discovered it was common knowledge. Even the personnel at the jail knew about it. There had just never been anything done about it.”
There still hasn’t. In June 2011, Murphy was fired by Whatcom County — in part, he believes, because the investigation was getting too close to the county prosecutor’s office.
Murphy filed suit for wrongful termination and his case is scheduled for trial next May.
In the meantime, if the electronic home monitoring system is so fraught with problems in a small county like Whatcom, how much worse is it in metropolitan communities like King or Pierce County?
His bail bondsman, Jail Sucks Bail Bonds, Inc., was notified, but in a subsequent investigation, it wasn’t clear whether the company passed on a warning to Pierce County law enforcement — and if so, whether any action was taken.
In either case, Murphy believes if he’d been able to complete his investigation, it would have led to a statewide examination of electronic home monitoring practices and possible legislation to patch any holes in the net.
“We’ll never know for sure,” Murphy said, “but it’s possible those four cops might be alive today if we’d realized back then just how screwed up this system is.”
• Part 2: Whistleblower fired just as his investigation into electronic home monitoring abuse was yielding results.
• Part 3: What can the Legislature do to tighten up the state’s electronic home monitoring laws?
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Freedom Foundation - 9/18/13
The public is living under a false sense of security when it comes to criminal supervision through electronic home monitoring (EHM) devices in Washington state.
In a new study with the Freedom Foundation, whistleblower Paul Murphy, a former Whatcom County Detective, claims that he has uncovered a scheme in which criminals “buy time off” of their electronic home monitoring devices. In exchange for petty favors or cash, private EHM companies, contracted by the government to monitor criminals serving time under house arrest, will look the other way when an alert comes through. Criminals use this time to illegally run errands, visit a significant other, or commit additional crimes. In the most egregious cases, criminals have committed heinous crimes such as rape and murder, or leveraged their “time off" into an alibi.
The confusion of responsibility between government and private EHM companies is staggering, and it must be remedied quickly for the sake of public safety. Read more in our full study or in The Olympia Report's news article.
Click here to read the full report