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Iowa sheriff’s office implementing pretrial electronic monitoring pilot program

The program is for domestic violence, sexual assault and forcible felony offenders awaiting trial


GPS monitoring would alert law enforcement potentially before the victim was even aware of the safety breach, said Delaney Dixon of The Domestic Violence Intervention Program.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

By Izabela Zaluska
The Gazette

IOWA CITY — In what’s believed to be a first in Iowa, the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office is preparing to implement a pilot program that allows certain individuals to be electronically monitored rather than spend time in jail while they’re awaiting trial.

Sheriff Brad Kunkel said the program, which has a targeted start date of April 1, continues the county’s effort to find ways to divert people from jail and reduce the jail population, while also keeping victims safe.

To his knowledge, and others in the judicial system, Johnson County would become the first local program in the state to use GPS monitoring for pretrial offenders.

The program is for domestic violence, sexual assault and forcible felony offenders awaiting trial. But the specific criteria of who will be eligible is being worked out, Kunkel said.

“To start with, we’re just going to focus on kind of a narrow group of domestic violence offenders,” Kunkel said. “As the program grows, we’ll look to see if we can add certain individuals who are charged with some sort of a sex crime or other forcible felony.”

Kunkel said the program isn’t applicable to all offenders, so “we have to make sure we’re careful in who is selected and evaluate also what’s the risk to the public and a victim.”

Kunkel said a work group has been formed with various parties, including the court, Johnson County Attorney’s Office, public defenders and victim advocacy to help craft the program.

“It’s an opportunity to mold this program to what’s going to work best here, but also know that it’s not static and that as we move along, we’ll be seeing what’s working, what’s not,” Kunkel said, adding that adjustments will be made along the way to figure out what works best for Johnson County.

Using pandemic aid dollars

The $1.1 million dollar program was approved by Johnson County Board of Supervisors last November and will be funded by federal pandemic relief funds. Funding is expected to span a total of five fiscal years, starting with $140,135.45 for fiscal 2022.

The funding will be used for the GPS monitoring software and hardware, as well as the salaries and benefits for two full-time deputy sheriffs.

The allowable use for the ARPA funds is “COVID-19 related expenses in congregate living facilities, including incarceration settings,” according to the county.

“This is something that’s really in the spirit of ARPA — an innovative, transformational project where we’re enhancing victim safety and we’re getting people out of jail so they can be with their families and working,” executive director for the Johnson County Board of Supervisors Mike Hensch said in October.

The Domestic Violence Intervention Program has seen a 28 percent increase in hotline calls each month since May 2020, program assistant executive director Delaney Dixon said. During the pandemic, Dixon said perpetrators have used social distancing to isolate their domestic violence victims. GPS monitoring has the potential to increase offender accountability and keep victims safe in their homes, Dixon said.

“ARPA dollars created an opportunity to build a program that increases safety,” Dixon said. “No one should have to be afraid in their home.”

Increasing jail alternatives

Kunkel said electronic monitoring ankle bracelets can be available for those who are sentenced to jail time. The main form of pretrial supervision in the state is run through the Iowa Department of Corrections. Johnson County’s program, Kunkel said, would shift some of the supervision to the Sheriff’s Office.

“We’re not going to supervise folks like they’re on probation,” Kunkel said. “The goal is to allow them to still have access to employment, treatment, whatever those services may be, and deter and prevent no-contact order violations, all the while reducing people who are in jail.”

Dixon said her program hears experiences of victims who are harassed despite having a no-contact order from court. GPS monitoring, she said, would alert law enforcement potentially before the victim was even aware of the safety breach, which would maintain the intent of the order and keep the victim safe.

The idea to pursue a program like this in Johnson County came from a trip the Sheriff’s Office and others took in fall 2019 to Pitt County in North Carolina. Kunkel and others were hosted by the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office and looked at how the county systemically addresses domestic violence and helps victims.

At that time, Pitt County was saving $1.2 million a year in day-to-day jail costs through its electronic monitoring program.

“And I thought, ‘why can’t we do that here to expand on what we’re doing for jail alternatives but also to provide another measure of safety and security for victims, while affording some offenders to have the opportunity to maintain employment, have access to treatment services or other support systems they may have?’” Kunkel said.

Dixon was part of the group that visited Pitt County. She said it was interesting to see how other advocates and law enforcement work together to better the quality of life for victim-survivors.

Kunkel told the Board of Supervisors in October the jail population before the COVID-19 pandemic was, on average, between 60 and 65 individuals. It then decreased to the 30s but has since been trending upward.

He told the board that some domestic violence offenders who in the past would have been held on bail now are being released on their own recognizance. Electronic monitoring would add safety and security for victims, he added.

Next steps

The Sheriff’s Office still needs to determine approval criteria and an application for the pretrial GPS monitoring, Kunkel said.

If a judge allows an individual to be released on GPS monitoring, Kunkel said, applications will be reviewed by a deputy, who will make a recommendation if the individual is a suitable candidate for electronic monitoring. This is the same process for sentenced inmates. Protocols for if a deputy receives an alert related to the ankle bracelet or if an individual tries to cut off the bracelet also need to be decided, he added.

“We’ve got to do some planning internally,” Kunkel said. “What’s going to be the protocol to respond? How do we follow up on that and then what criminal charges are appropriate should an offender cut the bracelet off?”

Kunkel said he anticipates it taking six months to a year to see the benefits — such as cost savings — of implementing the pilot program. Other potential benefits that might be harder to track would be if there are fewer no-contact order violations and if more individuals are successfully being released to GPS monitoring who otherwise would have been held in jail on bail.

Dixon said the domestic violence project will continue to plan with victims and listen to where challenges exist for them and their safety. She said one of the next steps is to look at recommendations from other programs across the country that use electronic monitoring.

“GPS monitoring will not solve every way a no-contact order can be violated,” Dixon said. “Still, it will work towards accountability, and it will help reduce what could be potentially lethal situations, such as the perpetrator being in the same physical space as their victim.”

(c)2022 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)