Should Nebraska step up its use of electronic ankle bracelets? -
Published Monday, January 6, 2014 at 12:30 am / Updated at 1:40 am
Far from foolproof, critics say
Should Nebraska step up its use of electronic ankle bracelets?

Ankle monitors, the telltale sign of a person who's been on the wrong side of the law, just might get a lot more visible as Nebraska looks for ways to turn out more prisoners out onto the street.

But while law enforcement officials and lawmakers hope the technology can keep better track of more convicts, Nebraska has a lot of wrinkles to iron out before expanding its use.

Some in law enforcement caution against increased reliance on the devices.

“There are some things that are probably going to fall through the cracks, and they're going to fall to us,” said Jim Maguire, president of the deputies union for the Douglas County Sheriff's Office.

Two prospective bills in the Nebraska Legislature look to expand the use of the “electronic monitoring.”

One bill, being drafted by the Omaha Police Department and searching for a sponsor, would put monitoring bracelets on parolees convicted of violent gun crimes for up to six months. Another, sponsored by State Sen. Brad Ashford, would free up prison space by releasing offenders early — if they agree to wear the tracking units.

Both would represent a dramatic shift in how the state uses electronic monitoring.

As it stands, electronic monitoring is most common in Nebraska for parolees, those prisoners who followed an assigned plan behind bars and were released early.

Some 230 parolees were assigned to wear ankle bracelets as of late December, said Dawn Renee Smith, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Corrections. About one-fifth of parolees spend time on electronic monitoring, she said.

Sex offenders make up the largest group who are monitored electronically. They account for 42 percent of the currently tracked parolees. An additional 38 violent offenders are wearing the devices, as well.

Some criminals who are sentenced to probation rather than prison also are assigned to use the devices. In 2013, more than 500 adults and juveniles on probation were monitored, or about 2 percent of all probationers.

Relying more on the monitors raises concerns, Maguire said.

People cut the bracelets off all the time, he said. And expecting such monitoring to dissuade violent offenders would be an invitation for trouble.

“If somebody has it in their mind that they're going to do something to somebody, what's an ankle bracelet going to stop?” he said.

Deputy Chief Greg Gonzalez of the Omaha Police Department said ramping up ankle monitoring wouldn't be a panacea for violent crime.

But he said it could reduce the risk of criminals re-offending — or could give officers better information if they do re-offend, which could be particularly useful with gun crimes.

Tracking data could be coupled with other technology to help pinpoint whether a released prisoner was at a crime scene.

“It's another resource, that extra layer of protection,” he said. “You have to explore that.”

Electronic monitoring is used across the country, and a number of studies have confirmed that it reduces the odds that criminals will re-offend.

A Florida study funded by the National Institute of Justice found that electronic monitoring reduced recidivism by 31 percent. The study concluded that the monitors were less successful for violent criminals.

A Pew Charitable Trust study on parole in New Jersey had similar results. Criminals freed without any oversight re-offended 40 percent of the time. Supervised offenders re-offended 25 percent of the time.

But the monitors have had some high-profile failures, as well: Last year, the Colorado prison chief was killed by a parolee who had cut off his ankle monitor bracelet.

That killing prompted a National Institute of Corrections review of Colorado's system. That review found instances of equipment failure and also found that the system suffered from a hard-to-manage volume of alerts.

Ashford, chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, said he eventually would like to see an ankle bracelet on everyone released from prison as a way to reintroduce them into society. If an ankle bracelet can reduce the chance that someone will commit another crime, it's worth using, he said.

“This is crazy. We have people who are violent, likely to re-offend,” he said. “There's got to be a stop. There's got to be a check. There has to be a step down, back into society.”

Over an 18-month period, Ashford said, supervised release could reduce the prison population by some 600 inmates, putting the system at 132 percent of capacity.

Two Nebraska inmates have sued state officials over overcrowding. Similar lawsuits in other states have resulted in federal takeovers and forced release of prisoners.

On Friday, state prisons held 1,687 inmates beyond their design capacity, or about 53 percent over capacity.

There are no rules that govern who is placed on electronic monitoring in Nebraska. Parole Board members and probation officers make the decision based on who they think would benefit from the oversight.

Ankle units can monitor all sorts of things that just a few years ago would have sounded like science fiction. They can track location in real time or even tell whether an offender is drinking alcohol.

Most monitors are capable of tracking offenders' exact location, though the most common use in Nebraska is “proximity monitoring,” which ensures that offenders stay in or out of specific areas.

For example, proximity monitoring could ensure that an offender leaves home for work by a certain time, said Deb Minardi, deputy administrator of the probation office. Conversely, a former crime victim could be given a monitor that would sound an alarm whenever an offender comes near.

GPS tracking — which allows officials to know exactly where an offender is at all times — is much more rare, she said.

Proximity monitoring works well, she said. Violations are infrequent.

“Offenders know: If they're not where they're supposed to be, the bells are going to go off,” she said.

Currently, probation and parole officers have access to offenders' location data. Police don't — they have to request access on a case-by-case basis.

“It's not just a routine share of that information,” said Corey Steel, deputy probation administrator. “If the courts say share that information, we share it.”

Ashford said figuring out how best to share location data will be a key part of any legislation.

“That's an obstacle, not a reason not to do it,” Ashford said.

Gonzalez, the deputy chief, said he'd like to see more sharing of such information.

“That's going to be the challenge, it's true,” he said. “But if we can get everybody working as a unified front, it's definitely going to be advantageous.”

Contact the writer: Matt Wynn    |   402-444-3144    |  

Matt does document- and data-driven stories and builds things for the Web that leverage both.

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