Monitor the monitoring

October 21, 2004

ALLOWING ACCUSED criminals to enroll in a private home-monitoring program on their own is no way to ensure the public's safety. That was made shockingly clear recently when Baltimore police tried to track down two suspects in a murder and found -- surprise, surprise -- that neither had reported for home monitoring as ordered by a judge. The fact that two suspects failed to enroll pointed up a glaring deficiency: The state criminal justice system can't say for sure who has or hasn't registered with private home-monitoring companies.

That's because no one is monitoring the private home-detention system. And that's got to change. Private home-monitoring companies have been used for more than a decade to keep tabs on defendants released on bond. But their use varies from defendant to defendant, judge to judge, county to county. That's a situation ripe for abuse, as Sun reporter Ryan Davis discovered last week in researching the whereabouts of Baltimore murder suspects Dennis Bowser and Kevin Dorsey, who never hooked up with a private home-monitoring company.

Judges assign a defendant to a private home-monitoring system -- which can cost $300 a month -- as a condition of bail, while a separate state system handles mostly offenders who are serving a sentence. Of the more than 24,500 offenders enrolled in the state program since 1990, state officials say 76 percent to 80 percent comply with program rules and less than 1 percent commit new crimes while on home detention.

Similar statistics aren't readily available for defendants on private home monitoring, because no one is charged with undertaking a systemwide review. The companies are licensed and insured, but beyond that, state law requires little in the way of oversight. The state audits individual firms every two years and requires monthly reports on their client load. The law, however, is silent on the nitty-gritty aspects of this system, including eligibility for the program. It doesn't specify the contractual relationship between a defendant and a private home-detention firm or the speed with which a defendant must enter a program.

Efforts by state lawmakers to tighten the law on private companies failed in 2000, but a legislative committee meets Tuesday to assess the current "honor" system that leaves it up to a defendant and his attorney to register with a private home-monitoring firm. Any changes should include requiring a private home-monitoring company to affirm in court its acceptance of a defendant. If a suspect posts bond, a home-monitoring firm must enroll him at the time of his release from jail. Public safety officials also should do a systemwide audit of defendants in private home-monitoring programs to determine their compliance.

An honor system might be OK for Scouts, but not for defendants accused of serious crimes.

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