County considers use of 'house arrest'

September 14, 1992|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

As the citizen task force considers alternatives to jail sentences to reduce the detention center population, two county council members say house arrest may be an option.

Under house arrest, the inmate must remain at home unless the court authorizes travel, usually for work, school or a medical appointment. An electronic monitoring device assures compliance.

Council members Edward Middlebrooks and George F. Bachman said they are especially interested in a sophisticated electronic monitoring system the county considered buying last year.

The Voicenet system places a random call each day to the inmate's home. The system compares the inmate's voice with a voice print stored in the computer, and notifies detention center officials if the inmate doesn't answer or a discrepancy is noted.

The voice print comparison makes it virtually impossible for another person to imitate the inmate's voice. As a backup, prisoners wear a bracelet that sends out a radio signal so that authorities can determine the inmate's location.

"If this can help alleviate some of the overcrowding, then this is something we ought to look at," said Mr. Middlebrooks.

Mr. Bachman said he was impressed with a demonstration of the system, and would like the full council to see it.

"It's something that should be explored. I wouldn't say I'm overwhelmingly in favor of it, but I would like to see it used for some of these minor violations."

House arrest is not used extensively in Maryland. Only 11 out of the 24 jurisdictions use it in some form. In July, Baltimore used it most, with an average of 74 inmates and a maximum of 94 inmates. It was followed by Baltimore County, which averaged 71 inmates; Prince George's County, which averaged 53 inmates; Montgomery County, which averaged 43 inmates; and Anne Arundel County, which averaged 40 inmates.

House arrest has been used here since 1987, beginning with people convicted of drunken driving. Since then, its use has expanded. "We have everything from driving while intoxicated to child abuse," said Robin Harting, deputy superintendent of the detention center.

The county's monitoring system consists of a device that calls the inmate at some point during the day and takes a picture of the person, which is transmitted over telephone lines to the detention center staff.

The county bought 108 of the units for about $38,000. The program costs between $90,000 and $100,000 to operate, mostly for salaries of its three employees. Each inmate is charged $8 per day to participate in the program. Last year money from inmate fees totaled $43,000.

"If we were fully operational, the program could probably pay for itself," said Detention Center Superintendent Richard Baker.

The system appears to be falling out of favor in the county. In July 1991, 57 people were serving home detention. That number decreased to 44 people in June of this year, and currently totals below 40.

The reason for the decrease is that judges don't like house arrest, Ms. Harting said.

Detention center officials considered buying a more sophisticated electronic monitoring system in its fiscal 1993 budget.

They solicited bids from several companies, including the one that manufactures Voicenet, the low bidder.

Detention center officials asked district and circuit court judges if they would sentence people to house arrest if the county bought more sophisticated equipment.

"And the response we got back was that it wouldn't make any difference," Ms. Harting said. "It wasn't the equipment, it was more the clientele they were seeing."

Circuit Court Judge Eugene M. Lerner agreed. "I don't think it's effective," he said. "By and large it doesn't mean anything to some people."

He pointed to one of his cases where he sentenced a quadriplegic man to house arrest for dealing drugs.

Judge Lerner later learned that the man was still dealing out of his house.

"Overall, it's not as effective as sending somebody to jail," he said.

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