Lawmakers consider expanding electronic monitoring of pretrial detainees
MONTPELIER — With the number of pretrial detainees far exceeding what the state has budgeted for, lawmakers are seeking ways to reduce the numbers, including an expansion of electronic monitoring.
About 415 people are currently in Vermont jails as they await trial. Many are held because they cannot post bail. Some are being held without bail because they are a risk to the public or because there is cause to believe they may not attend future court proceedings, officials told the Joint Legislative Corrections Oversight Committee on Monday.
The Department of Corrections has only budgeted for about 300 such detainees, however. The additional detainees are costing the state money, but also contributing to a space crunch in Vermont prisons that’s causing some inmates to be incarcerated out of state.
Several factors have led to the increase, including broad sweeps in three communities — Bennington, Springfield and St. Albans — in which dozens of alleged drug dealers were rounded up and arrested by police. Many of them were initially held in jail pending further court action.
Committee Chairwoman Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, said the aggressive effort to eradicate the drug trade in Vermont will keep the detainee population high.
“If we continue to have drug sweeps throughout the state and there’s high gang activity throughout the state, then it’s fair to say that our high detainee numbers will still be there,” Emmons said.
Electronic monitoring, the use of ankle bracelets fitted with GPS tracking devices, could be one solution. Nathan Lavery, a fiscal analyst with the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office, said he is currently reviewing the state’s existing monitoring program. He provided the committee with information Monday showing that a GPS-enabled ankle bracelet costs the state about $5 per day to monitor.
Several obstacles are in place, however.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and vice chairman of the Corrections Oversight Committee, said exactly who would monitor pretrial defendants is an issue. The DOC is not currently responsible for pretrial detainees who are not ordered held by a court, he said.
“If they’re just released on bail or conditions, it’s not Corrections’ problem. It becomes Corrections’ problem when they get incarcerated,” Sears said. “We could make it Corrections’ problem, I just don’t know if we want to. ... I don’t know how to reduce the population unless you do something like that.”
Others raised concerns Monday about GPS monitoring. Chief Administrative Judge Amy Davenport said judges in Vermont are reluctant to use the devices because they can be removed.
“Unfortunately, it just doesn’t give judges a lot of confidence that it works,” she said. “A lot of that is based on anecdote and I don’t even know if it’s based on anecdote from this state.”
And Bram Kronickfeld, executive director of the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, noted that pretrial defendants can only be held in jail if they are considered to be a flight risk or a danger to the public. Allowing defendants held for those reasons to be released with an ankle bracelet “could result in damage to public safety,” he said.
Additionally, the state is unlikely to see any significant savings, because any time served by a defendant before trial is taken off of their sentences if they are convicted, Kronickfeld said.
“The idea that you could save a significant amount of money by lowering pretrial detention may be flawed in that one of the things that happens at sentencing is people get credit for time served,” he said. “You may just be moving time to the end.”
Defender General Matthew Valerio spoke in favor of expanding electronic monitoring. He said the bracelets can be removed, but officials know “pretty quickly” when they are removed.
Judges and prosecutors have not embraced the latest technology, though, which is “significantly better” than it used to be, he said.
“It’s become almost a religious thing. You either believe in it or you don’t,” Valerio said. “I almost feel like the Department of Corrections is a little more accepting of the technology if somebody would order it. But it has not been adopted by the state’s attorneys or the courts.”
Still, “You aren’t going to have a zero failure rate. There are going to be failures and that has to be accepted that that’s part of the process,” Valerio said.
Sears said lawmakers will continue to discuss alternatives to incarceration for pretrial defendants.
“We’re serious about the idea that more people could be monitored if it’s 24-hour monitoring. Currently, we only know, maybe a day after, that they were out-of-bounds. With the 24-hour real time monitoring that’s available, if you had somebody monitoring it you’d know immediately if they weren’t at work or weren’t where they were supposed to be,” he said.
The state is already using electronic monitoring on a very limited basis, according to Sears.
“Statewide there’s only two people on electronic monitoring. Come on. Give me a break,” he said. “It’s bizarre.”
The Legislature would have to approve funding for the up-front costs of implementing additional electronic monitoring if it is expanded.
“There’s a real savings there as long as you could continue to protect public safety and make sure that (defendants) appear in court,” Sears said.
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