Prison Without Bars: Doing Time At Home

September 18, 1994|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

Steven Sias' prison is a chaotic rowhouse filled with family pictures and statuettes of praying hands. Grandma has cooked up bean soup and corn bread, and the TV that will be Mr. Sias' constant companion drowns out the coos of the wide-eyed, 5-month-old baby sister on his lap.

The jailers are a whole street of Southwest Baltimore relatives, who say 18-year-old Steven has another think coming if he ventures to cool off on the front steps or otherwise make that box on his ankle set off a whole pack of trouble for everybody.

This is the prison of the future -- home.

An assault conviction from "a fight with an ex-friend" landed Mr. Sias in the minimum-security Baltimore City Correctional Center

for a month before he qualified for the state's electronic monitoring program, which allows him to serve time at home and alerts correctional officers if he steps outside for an unapproved reason.

"We got everybody on this block to watch him," Mr. Sias' stepmother, Paulette Sias, said the day of his homecoming, pointing up and down the 300 block of Norris St. "He will be minding." Then she softened: "I'm glad they can do this. It's been too long since he's been home."

With the billion-dollar prospect of building more prisons and with the public eager to lock criminals up for longer terms, politicians have seized on electronic monitoring as the lifeline out of a money pit. But officials acknowledge -- and developments around the country bear out -- that putting large numbers of prisoners into home monitoring is risky.

Instead of taking up prison beds, inmates on home monitoring provide their own shelter and food. Computers track them through voice checks and ankle bracelets that send radio signals. State law requires case managers to screen out those serving life sentences, most violent offenders, former escapees and child abusers, along with anyone else who seems too dangerous.

Both candidates in November's gubernatorial showdown -- Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, and Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a Baltimore County Republican -- want to expand electronic monitoring as one way of punishing nonviolent offenders while making room for dangerous criminals behind bars.

With 82 percent of home detention inmates making it to release without a violation, state public safety officials say they have one of the best electronic monitoring programs in the country.

Inmates in home detention have committed few serious crimes while in the program, Maryland officials

say. One possible exception was a parolee who violated the detention program, became a suspect in two slayings in Baltimore and then was found dead in Virginia.

Saving money

The financial benefits are evident: It costs about $18 a day to electronically monitor an inmate, compared with about $44 to keep that inmate in prison. Corrections officials estimate the program will save Maryland taxpayers $7 million in the current fiscal year.

Officials say that to make home detention a big part of the prison system, they would have to select riskier inmates, tolerate more violations before sending participants back to prison and allow prisoners additional time away from home.

Such changes could lead to new crimes -- and even kill the concept here. New Jersey, for example, shut down its electronic monitoring program after a drug offender slipped out of his bracelet and fatally shot a teen-ager in 1992.

Proponents of home detention say the public has to accept that kind of nightmarish possibility or mortgage the future on prison construction.

"We [must] recognize that we need to tolerate additional risk," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's Democrat who is a former chairman of the House Budget subcommittee on law enforcement.

Bishop L. Robinson, state secretary of public safety and correctional services, said the state's program could double its capacity to about 1,000 offenders by adding participants in a new long-term outpatient drug treatment program that is just starting.

Many drug offenders do not qualify for home monitoring now, but the new treatment program requires day reporting and more supervision of inmates, allowing some of them to be on home detention without endangering public safety, Mr. Robinson said.

That prospect might not sit well with some judges. Baltimore District Judge Kathleen M. Sweeney lobbied last year for a law to allow city judges to keep some pretrial prisoners out of the program. One of her special concerns was drug sellers.

Judge Sweeney said problems with home detention have eased since the law took effect in July but that she does not think it is the answer to prison crowding.

"I've had a guy in on the fourth [driving while intoxicated], and it was time for this gentleman to go to jail," Judge Sweeney said. "So I sent him to jail and they put him on home detention. What kind of message does that send?"

Expanding the program could be harder than politicians make it sound.

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