Wednesday, November 29, 2000
Arrest monitor on the other foot for solicitor
By JOHN MUNFORD
Staying on house arrest isn't as easy as it sounds.
Steve Harris, Fayette County's solicitor general, knows it for a fact. For the past month, he has been testing the computer system that monitors probationers who are sentenced to house arrest.
Plans are to use the system more and more for nonviolent offenders to relieve overcrowding at the county jail, Harris said.
"It's not for everybody," Harris points out.
The black box has awakened Harris at all hours of the night with a piercing siren signaling that it's time for a random sobriety test. Sunday, it gave him nine sobriety tests in 24 hours.
Harris also wears the awkward-feeling ankle monitor that lets the black box know he's nearby, and that takes a little getting used to.
"I can appreciate the fact that if you're on this system, it's not a piece of cake," Harris said.
But for the approximately 55 offenders who have been sentenced to house arrest in Fayette County, one little slipup could result in a probation violation and send them to jail. Probation officers monitor readouts from each probationer, checking to see if the system reported any irregularities.
The black box records whenever the probationer leaves the range of the black box (about 75 yards), whenever a sobriety test is failed (along with the corresponding blood alcohol results) and if the ankle monitor is ever cut off.
Safeguards are built into the system to prevent anyone from taking the breath test for the probationer. The "sobrietor" is programmed to recognize the probationer's voice and several key words must be repeated to authenticate the test.
The sobrietor's infrared sensors also can tell when your face leaves the nozzle to pass it to someone else.
"So far, I am very pleased with the quality of the results," Harris said.
The rules about "no alcohol" are very strict, he added. You can't even take any cold medicine that has alcohol in it.
"If you violate your probation, your alternative is the county jail," Harris said.
Harris also has been testing the house arrest computer system to make sure it doesn't give any "false positives." One day he used mouthwash right before a test.
The 17-hundredths reading was so high that Harris was called to do another test a half-hour later, which showed his breath test back at the normal level.
Many probationers on house arrest are allowed to leave home and go to work for a certain period of time, Harris said. But that work shift must be documented by a time card when the system is first set up by the probation officer, he added.
The monitoring cost is usually paid for by the offenders, ranging from $7 to $10 a month, although in some cases the county foots the bill, Harris said. Either way, it saves the taxpayers money because it's much more expensive to house each person in the jail, he added.
"This is a way for nonviolent offenders to suffer a penalty at no cost to the citizens, and he can be a productive member of society," Harris said. "... If we thought a person was a threat, the automatic response would be the county jail."
The tactic can be effective, as Harris recalled a DUI offender who was on house arrest for almost a full year with the sobriety monitor. The man was gradually released off house arrest, at first only to attend counseling and later so he could go back to work.
Other probationers, however, have proven they can't handle the responsibility of being on house arrest, Harris added. Those people are sent to jail for the remainder of their probation sentence, he added.
"It allows people to work to pay off their fine, their debt to society, and support their family at the same time," Harris said. "But the defendant has to be willing to comply with the requirements to stay out of jail."
Harris, for one, has almost had enough of being on house arrest. He originally planned to test it for 60 days, but he's already decided to cut his sentence to 30 days.
"I'm ready for a little peace and quiet," he said.