Each year, thousands of suspects are arraigned on criminal charges. And in each case, judges across Vermont are faced with a quandary: release the alleged offender on conditions, or hold him or her in jail pending trial.
When the call is a close one, cautious judges will often err on the side of incarceration, even in cases involving relatively low-level offenses. And the result is a population of pre-trial detainees that has exceeded state projections, and become an annual budget-buster at the Department of Corrections.
But a new program about to be launched in southern Vermont will soon provide law-enforcement authorities with the capacity to keep constant tabs on the whereabouts of criminal suspects. And Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark says the technology will offer judges a new way of resolving pre-trial dilemmas involving questionable offenders.
“And if they fail to be where they’re supposed to be or go to a place where they’re not supposed to be … it literally will pop up on the screen and my dispatcher will then call a deputy,” Clark says.
Clark’s agency will administer a $300,000 pilot program approved by lawmakers earlier this year. The money will pay not only for state-of-the-art electronic monitoring bracelets and GPS technology, but a director to oversee the program. The money will also fund the round-the-clock coverage Clark’s department will need to ensure prompt response times to offender violations.
It’s a significant criminal justice reform for Vermont, where the role of monitoring offenders has traditionally fallen to the Department of Corrections. One obvious benefit is the state budget. Housing an offender in an in-state prison bed costs taxpayers about $180 a day.
“I can do electronic monitoring for about $30 a day per person,” Clark says.
But a new analysis conducted by the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office suggests the benefits are more far-reaching. The analysis, which relies on a trove of data culled from national research, predicts a 17-percent reduction in recidivism rates for pre-trial detainees for whom electronic monitoring is used as an alternative to incarceration.
By keeping offenders out of prison in the first place, according to JFO analyst Nathan Lavery, they become statistically less likely to commit another crime.
“By using electronic monitoring, you can help people preserve the support systems that make them less likely to re-offend – their job, their housing , their family life, that sort of thing,” Lavery says.
Andrew Pallito, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections, says his department uses electronic monitoring to track about 200 offenders, mostly on furlough. He says there’s room to grow that number, and that the technology should be expended to include pre-trial detainees.
But he says he isn’t banking any savings yet.
“I would say in any of these programs, we intentionally move slow. And part of that is because risk has got to be a big factor in what we’re doing,” Pallito says. “We live in a state that’s got a low crime rates … And so we want to make sure we keep that intact.”
Pallito says the state is reforming its risk assessment tools, so that it will be better equipped to determine who is a good candidate for monitoring, and who belongs behind bars.