Electronic monitoring useful for Eastern Iowa courts, but 'not a magic bullet'

On the last day of FY 2012, the Sixth Judicial District had 74 offenders on electronic monitoring

Lee Hermiston
The Gazette

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — In a rare move, a man facing a first-degree murder charge was allowed to return to his home in St. Paul, Minn., where he will await his trial.

A judge found that John Bloomfield’s deteriorating health made placing him under house arrest necessary so he had access to health care and his attorney, who had difficulty visiting him at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville.

“It’s unusual,” Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said of the decision, noting it’s uncommon for someone facing a serious offense to be released from custody without posting bail. “But it’s an unusual case.”

Bloomfield won’t be able to come and go as he pleases, however. The court has ordered that he only leave his home for medical and court appointments and to meet with his attorney.

All his movements will be tracked by a global positioning system device.

While Bloomfield’s case may be rare, the electronic monitoring of offenders who are serving sentences or those who are on probation or parole is becoming increasingly common. According to the Iowa Department of Corrections, offenders on electronic monitoring has increased from 146 in fiscal year 2004 to 820 in fiscal year 2012.

On June 30, 2012, the last day of fiscal 2012, the Sixth Judicial District — which includes Johnson, Linn, Jones, Iowa, Benton and Tama counties — had 74 offenders on electronic monitoring.

While a majority of offenders on electronic monitoring, 83.7 percent in 2012, are tracked via a GPS device, the Department of Corrections uses other methods to track offenders. A radio frequency device, for example, consists of an ankle monitor and receiver connected to the offender’s home telephone and allows officials to track when the offender comes and goes from his or her home.

Department of Corrections officials also can remotely monitor an offender’s alcohol consumption with a bracelet that uses transdermal technology.

Electronic monitoring has been a tool at the Department of Correction’s disposal since 1989, said Randy Cole, former executive officer of the Sixth Judicial District’s sex offender program and current residential supervisor of the Hope House residential facility in Coralville.

“We took the offenders that were on the elevated risk continuum … and used it as an intermediate sanction or intermediate treatment intervention,” said Cole.

From a public safety standpoint, electronic monitoring helps law enforcement track the movement of offenders, particularly those convicted of violent offenses, substance abuse or sex offenses. In fiscal year 2012, sex offenders made up 83 percent of all offenders on electronic monitoring, according to the Department of Correction’s 2013 report.

Legislation passed in 2005 places special sentences on sex offenders who have completed their incarceration, which can last from 10 years to life depending on the level of offense.

Monitored from a command center in Des Moines, offenders on GPS tracking can have individualized movement restrictions put in place — known as inclusion and exclusion zones. The Corrections Department can monitor if someone with a no-contact order isn’t violating that order, or can tell if someone with a history of alcohol abuse has been frequenting a bar.

Cole said the electronic monitoring can be beneficial to the offender, as well. Knowing they are being tracked is a reminder to an offender of where they should and should not be.

It can lead to early intervention if an offender begins to relapse or show signs of problematic behavior, such as a sex offender frequenting strip clubs and adult stores. It also can provide an alibi in the face of accusations, Cole said.

“A number of these guys appreciate being on electronic monitoring,” he said. “It’s another instrument that helps account for where they’re at and what they’re doing.”

For those serving sentences at county jails that have an electronic monitoring program, GPS tracking can help them maintain jobs or classes.

Use of electronic monitoring at the Johnson County Jail is restricted to those serving their sentence who are doing work release or serving an in-home sentence. The practice is not very wide spread in Johnson County.

Serving an in-home sentence is not very popular as the sentence is always tripled and the offender has to pay for the service, Pulkrabek said. The work release program generally only has 3 to 12 participants at any given time, said Sgt. John Good, who oversees the department’s work release program.

“It’s a pretty stringent type of monitoring,” Good said. “It allows them to keep their job while in jail, which is a benefit to the community as well as us.”

Inmates participating in the county’s work release program still spend their nights at the jail, but are allowed to leave for work, generally no more than 44 hours a week. The inmate only can go to and from work and are subjected to a breath test and occasional drug monitoring when they return from their shift. All jail inmates are eligible, provided a judge signs off on the work release.

Deputies track inmates on a Google Earth-style map that can ping their location every three to seven minutes.

Inmates pay $20 a day for the service, Good said.

“That pays for the monitoring system,” he said. “We’re able to allow them the benefit of going out to work. If they are doing a seven- to 14-day sentence, there’s no reason they need to lose their job because they are doing that sentence.”

Iowa City lawyer Dave Foster said electronic monitoring provides inmates with a valuable service.

“It really does make it possible for people to keep their jobs,” he said. “Most people can get a week off work without a problem. Anything longer than that and they risk losing their jobs.”

Foster said the GPS monitor also means less work for jail deputies, who used to have to physically go out and check on inmates on work release, thereby limiting the number of inmates who could benefit from the program. The flip side, however, is that defense attorneys previously could negotiate for reduced sentences in plea arrangements so their clients could keep their jobs.

With electronic monitoring, lawyers can no longer play that card, Foster said.

The Linn County Sheriff’s Office does not use electronic monitoring, Sheriff Brian Gardner said. Gardner said electronic monitoring is normally done to address jail overcrowding, which is not currently an issue.

Electronic monitoring is not a flawless system, however, the Corrections Department’s Cole noted.

“It’s good in the sense of it definitely enhances our ability to do what we do,” he said. “Like any other system, there are drawbacks. It’s not foolproof and it isn’t perfect.”

For example, there is a lag time of a few minutes — at best — between the real-time movements of offenders and before it reaches monitoring officials. Weather can affect the signal, causing it to “drift” and show offenders in a different place from where they actually are, Cole said.

There also are dead zones where the signal is not picked up by satellites.

All these factors, along with wear and tear on the devices, can lead to false positives that indicate an offender might be violating conditions of release when that’s not the case.

“The vendors are going to tell you it’s a very, very small number,” Cole said of the false positives. “I wish it was as good as it’s reported to be.”

Hard data on false positives was not available.

That also means in the case of an actual violation — such as an offender removing the monitor and trying to escape — law enforcement is going to find out at least a few minutes after the fact.

“We’re going to be minutes behind that guy,” Cole said. “If his real intent is to harm someone, we’re going to be behind him.”

Cole said GPS cannot replace the work of actual law enforcement work. He points to a report compiled for the 6th Judicial Districts legislative night in 2007 that showed GPS monitoring resulted in one arrest of a sex offender for monitoring violations in all of 2006.

On the other hand, Corrections Department High Risk Unit officers and local law enforcement made nine arrests during that same period for “technical not-sexual, and technical sexual violations, and possibly alleged new crime behavior” based on searches and residence checks.

“For the cost and the expense and manpower and resources involved for GPS, is it more beneficial than having more boots on the ground?” Cole said. “Most of us would tell you, no, it’s not.

“It’s a good tool. Like any other tool, it helps us do our jobs better. It’s not a magic bullet.”

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