Freedom isnâ??t free

When Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law the use of global positioning satellite devices to monitor the whereabouts of habitual sex offenders in 2005, it seemed like a sign of the times. It was a technological development that could help alleviate prison overcrowding in states teetering on financial ruin while adding a layer of security for a public bombarded by televised images of little girls being preyed upon. A new era of accountability by means of 24-hour satellite transmission dawned, and there were very few detractors.

Fast-forward to today, when GPS monitoring has become more pervasive within the judicial system: Along with older radio-frequency devices utilized for home confinement, GPS monitoring has grown into a go-to stipulation for people seeking pretrial release — or bonding out of jail — to the point that it may be blurring the constitutional lines of presumption of innocence. People released with the anklets are responsible for the costs, which range from $12 to $15 a day, regardless of the outcome of their trial.

While it's still a new science — Court Programs Inc., the private company that has managed all of Orange County's pretrial GPS cases for the past four years, estimates that there are only about 200 offenders currently on its roster — GPS monitoring is being heavily marketed as an efficient, safe way to keep track of people who may or may not be guilty of a crime.

But that outsourcing is troubling to those who represent the accused, and looking for profit in the criminal justice system comes with inherent problems. For example, up to 75 percent of those enmeshed in the legal system — both innocent and guilty — are considered indigent, making them unlikely players in the free-market game of new technology. Ninth Judicial Circuit Court public defender Bob Wesley calls the devices an "unnecessary hoop" defendants have to jump through, or worse, a "ball and chain."

Court Programs Inc. president and chief executive officer David Rothbart, whose family started the business 30 years ago, stands by his services.

"A high majority of it, the use of it is potentially to put protections in for the accused — and for the victims of the crimes that the people have been accused of — pending trial," Rothbart says. "Literally, it's more of a tool. It's a tool, No. 1 to reduce jail overcrowding, but it's also a tool to reassure that the offenders, when they're released from jail, are conforming to the judge's stipulations and aren't recommitting any offenses."

At the order of the judge, bonded defendants — usually those accused of felonies — are fitted with SecureAlert TrackerPAL II GPS devices that provide both spatial coordinates (which are monitored from a station in Salt Lake City) and an open line of cellular communication. Ideally, the devices ensure that defendants are on their best behavior, showing up for court dates and passing random drug tests. Rothbart claims that the devices have a 97 percent success rate in keeping their wearers in line.

The real selling point, though, is that they are free of charge to the county. Each GPS unit is leased from SecureAlert, costing Court Programs only about $6 a day to run (or $8 when the 75 percent payback rate is factored in). The rest is profit for the company, which also makes money from case-management services — probation, truancy and drug testing — in other counties. Defendants are not jailed if they don't pay, but they are encouraged to set up a plan to pay for their monitoring. Collecting is the company's problem.

"`It is` something that I try not to let the judges and the politicians even think about," says Rothbart. "They should think about the tool and let me take the financial risk. If I didn't think it was worthwhile, then I wouldn't be in the business."

Rothbart's marketing effort is aided in Central Florida by the lobbying force of former State Rep. Dick Batchelor. Rothbart also has a liaison stationed at the Orange County Courthouse to help sell circuit judges on the concept of GPS monitoring. He'd like to be at a caseload of about 1,000 monitors by now, he says, but given judicial turnover and a sagging economy, he's satisfied with the company's "steady, slow growth."

He's got big plans, though. Rothbart says he would like to see Court Programs' influence increase locally to include the electronic home-confinement cases currently overseen by the county. That program had 1,523 new intakes in 2008, averaging a 76.1 percent success rate and a scant 36.6 percent return in collections.

"You're talking county employees versus a private entity," says Rothbart. "Traditionally, I don't have to tell you the difference between a county agency running a program and a private entity. So, it could be conceivable down the road, now that we're trustworthy and successful, that they may outsource."

However, one of the GPS monitoring industry's most profitable arguments — that they are the perfect antidote to jail overcrowding — doesn't necessarily hold up in Orange County. According to Orange County Corrections spokesman Allen Moore, the jail is currently at about 3,800 inmates, below its 4,105 capacity. (The jail peaked at 5,000 inmates in August 2008.)

Also, Moore adds, frequently cited industry estimates that it costs about $80 a day to house an inmate are only figuratively true. That number would apply only if the jail were to close, he says, and all personnel and real estate costs had to be replicated elsewhere. As it stands, the cost per person is about $9.75 in consumables, which are things each inmate uses in jail. At that price, it's actually cheaper to keep someone in jail than it is to use GPS monitors, which cost $12 to $15 per day.

For Wesley and the public defender's office, it all adds up to a privatized distraction that could cause breakdowns in the judicial system. In one recent case `see "Sex, lies and a manila envelope," Oct. 7` defendant Edwin Melendez was forced to wait in jail for five days after posting bond while he awaited a GPS unit. Rothbart says he doesn't know of a situation in which the devices were unavailable, but Wesley contends with the day-to-day reality of GPS monitoring. "All I know is that when there's a backup, nobody knows anything about it except for my client who sits there and waits a long time."

And then there's the issue of profiting on the backs of people already caught up in the legal system.

"I'm opposed to anything that makes it harder for my clients, who are by definition poor, to be released from jail and to achieve their constitutional right of a presumptive, nonmonetary release from jail. That's presumed," Wesley says. "And when you put something else in that they have to pay for, that's not nonmonetary."

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