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Washington County agencies seek to boost funds for electronic monitoring

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PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - Law enforcement and corrections agencies are seeking additional funding to pay for a program that electronically monitors some people released from the Washington County Jail in Hillsboro.Washington County law enforcement agencies got a favorable response Tuesday to their request for funding to expand electronic monitoring of people awaiting trial.

During a work session of the county Board of Commissioners, officials from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and the Community Corrections Department asked for up to $184,000 to set up the program.

For the sheriff's office, which runs the Washington County Jail, part of the motivation for the request is that it would allow the release of up to 100 pre-trial defendants — those who are unable to make bail before their cases go to trial — into the community so as to avoid overcrowding and the potential forced release of more dangerous inmates.

Those let out under forced release go unmonitored, while those in an official pre-trial release program would be electronically monitored.

Noting that so far this year the WCSO has released 99 individuals due to lack of room in the jail, Lt. Matthew Frohnert said the key issue is to “make every bed count.” Forced release, he said, is inefficient, costly and results in skipped court dates.

“That leads to the arresting officer having to chase after the person, the [district attorney] and the defense attorney having to prepare for someone who doesn’t show up, and the judge clearing time on his calendar.”

Plus, once someone misses court, they know they’re wanted, and that becomes a public safety issue, Frohnert noted.

Currently, without monitoring, someone might be out on bail facing a Measure 11 offense — a crime requiring a mandatory minimum sentence in Oregon — “and there’s no safety net,” he said. “Monitoring allows us to keep track of them and stay engaged.”

For the Community Corrections Center — a 215-bed transition facility averaging between 2,000 and 2,100 residents per year and operating as a sort of halfway house between jail and the community — electronic monitoring is the route to allowing person-to-person offenders (those convicted of domestic violence or a sex offense) to attend work or treatment.

According to Community Corrections Director Steve Berger, the ankle bracelets are accurate to within a few feet, and various levels of alert can be programmed into them.

Active monitoring provides real-time monitoring (by Community Corrections staff or an outside company) of individuals’ movements, including immediate notification — via email, text or cell phone — of a violation such as entering a bar or approaching an ex-spouse's home.

Passive monitoring ensures information is downloaded into the system every six hours for review by corrections officials should they have a retroactive concern. Both forms of monitoring provide instant-locator capability.

“If a sex offender approaches a school, that will be flagged, and it’s all hands on deck,” Berger said. Electronic monitoring is not for offenders with a high risk and “low responsivity,” with no interest in complying, he added.

The sheriff’s office has been using ankle bracelets since 2006, and Community Corrections started a pilot program for probationers and parolees in 2013. The jail is asking commissioners for $78,000 a year to monitor 100 pre-trial release defendants, with one full-time staffer overseeing the program.

In addition, Berger’s agency proposes to monitor anywhere from 10 to 20 offenders a day starting July 1 at a cost of $82,000 a year, and the Juvenile Department anticipates a cost of $24,000 a year, said Philip Bransford, Washington County communications officer.

The contract also provides for alcohol monitoring by testing defendants’ perspiration once every 30 minutes.

The two agencies are looking to join with the county’s Juvenile Department in a joint, five-year contract with Nebraska-based Vigilnet America LLC, which would provide monitoring services.

To chip or not to chip?

Microchip tracking turned topical at Tuesday’s Washington County Commission work session during a discussion about the electronic monitoring of people released from the local jail.

Commissioner Roy Rogers — who led the meeting while Chairman Andy Duyck was away on business in Salem — wondered aloud about skipping ankle bracelets altogether in favor of offenders “swallowing some sort of pill or having a chip embedded.”

After the session, Rogers allowed that his comment smacked of “science fiction.” But an April 2014 Fox News Web story noted that, in fact, such technology is closer than many think.

“Microchip implants like the ones pet owners use to track their dogs and cats could become commonplace in humans over the next decade,” the report said. “Experts are divided on whether they’re appropriate for people, but the implants could offer several advantages.

“For soldiers and journalists in war zones, an implant could be the difference between life and death. A tracker could also help law enforcement quickly locate a kidnapped child.”

Recalling a panicked moment at the Pittsburgh Airport in 1994 — when his then-4-year-old son briefly disappeared on the concourse but was found by an airport employee — Commissioner Greg Malinowski suggested during the meeting that implanting chips in “3-year-olds” and “Alzheimer's patients” might be a good idea.

After the session, Malinowski reiterated his view that “if we can track phones and i-Pads, we can track vulnerable citizens."