Electronic monitors for inmates make their debut in capital city

Posted: Monday, January 22, 2001

State prison officials have begun using electronic monitoring devices in Juneau to allow some inmates to live at home while serving their sentences.

Two people began using the monitors, which look something like a cross between a sports watch and a handcuff, this month.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Margaret Pugh said 54 people in Anchorage, eight in Fairbanks and one in Kodiak wear the device.

"Our goal is 10 for Juneau," she said.

Electronic monitors are available only to convicted criminals considered safe for public release, Pugh said.

"There are no sex offenders, no domestic violence offenders," she said. "A person must be furlough-eligible, which means they have to have served at least a third of their sentence, and have had no disciplinary actions."

The program faces criticism because, while restrictive, it allows criminals to live at home and work regular jobs.

"I don't particularly like it," said Juneau District Attorney Rick Svobodny. "Letting people lead a normal life flies in the face of the idea that there should be a punishment aspect to justice."

Used in the Lower 48 for years, electronic monitoring debuted in Juneau on Jan. 3. The anklets are now worn by two criminals: Jim Demers, convicted of embezzling from the Alaska Folk Festival, and Twila Davis, who was convicted of a minor drug offense, officials said. Neither has a history of intoxication or violence, officials said.

Andy Swanston, operations director of Gastineau Human Services, the nonprofit organization that runs Juneau's half-way house, called electronic monitoring a low-cost, rehabilitative tool.

"It costs about $119 a day to keep someone in prison, about $63 a day in a half-way house, and $14 a day for EM," the term used for electronic monitoring, Swanston said.

Because those hooked up to the monitors are able to work, they can pay for the whole system, he said.

Before an offender is placed on the device, electronic monitoring supervisor Eric Nelson conducts home visits and makes sure the family is ready. An offender wears a bracelet or anklet. A receiver about the size and shape of Juneau's phone book is placed in the offender's home. The receiver searches at close range for the signal coming from the bracelet.

"If the offender tampers with the bracelet or tries to cut the strap or gets too far away from the receiver, I get an immediate alert and I respond," Nelson said.

All Juneau offenders on monitoring get a third component that measures intoxication at random times. The device asks the offender to pronounce pre-set words and alerts Nelson if the words don't fit an established sober pattern of speech.

The device makes considerable racket in summoning an offender for tests.

"The sooner you get to it, the sooner you get rid of that noise," Nelson said. "It makes the whole family cooperate. Nobody wants the cops to come crashing through the door."

Nelson said the monitoring devices let him know if an offender isn't home on time or deviates from the prescribed routine.

"We try to get the families to buy into the whole rehabilitation process," Swanston said. "And we may show up at any time and search the place. We go through the garbage and the refrigerator. We search the kids' rooms. It's pretty intimidating."

It's not intimidating enough for some residents.

District Attorney Svobodny said he has had several complaints about the electronic monitoring of convicted embezzler Demers.

"They have seen him on the street and at Fred Meyer. It was a real surprise to me, so I called the jail. I was told his jail consisted of his being at home or at work except for an hour at church on Sunday," Svobodny said. "Their response was that he could go to locations he wants, as long as it is employment-related."

"Living your life normally doesn't fulfill the public's idea of rehabilitation," Svobodny said. "It makes a mockery of what the public thinks the criminal justice system should be."

Swanston of Gastineau Human Services said electronic monitoring is more limiting than people think.

"The EM program is designed to take low-risk offenders and put them in the least restrictive circumstances. But it is truly house arrest. Offenders incarcerated at the GHS half-way house have more freedoms: They can go to the store, apply for passes, etc. On EM, the offender has only work, church and treatment," Swanston said.

Greg Pease, executive director of Gastineau Human Services, stressed that electronic monitoring is only one link in a chain of rehabilitation.

"EM is not a stand-alone program," Pease said. "It is part of a whole package of transition back into the community."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneau-empire.com.

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