Ankle monitors: a high-demand accessory for minor criminals

In Allegheny County, 925 wait for ankle bracelets

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Electronic monitoring devices, black anklets made of rubber and plastic, are not exactly coveted, but in Allegheny County they are certainly in high demand.

Last week, about 1,200 people were wearing the monitoring units, mostly used to enforce house arrest for those convicted in Common Pleas Court of minor criminal offenses. Another 925 people were waiting for them.

The electronic monitoring waiting list started ballooning about a year ago, about the same time the court introduced a program to expedite minor cases.

"It worked overly well," said Common Pleas Judge Beth A. Lazzara, one of two judges who hear cases through the program, called the Phoenix docket. A backlog of cases poured through, about 4,000 since January, she estimated.

"What we're getting now is a bubble," said Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, administrative judge of the court's criminal division.

On average, people stay on the waiting list for four to six months, usually serving a less restrictive probation term until a device is available. Their electronic monitoring sentence does not start until they put on an anklet.

"We're doing our best to expedite everyone," said Frank Scherer, manager of the county's monitoring program, part of the Adult Probation Department. The department tries to get an anklet to a new person the same day it is returned from someone else.

But the county owns only 1,200 of the devices, which cost about $2,500 each. At any time, more than 2,000 people are required to wear them.

"With that comes manpower issues," said Mr. Scherer. "If we were able to get equipment for all 925 people, we'd have to hire probably three dozen more probation officers and get more monitors and computer equipment."

Across Pennsylvania, electronic monitoring waiting lists are not unheard of.

Westmoreland County has a waiting list of 177 people, down from more than 200 last year.

Philadelphia County had a waiting list earlier this year with 73 names on it. The list has since been eliminated. "We bought more monitors," said court administrator David Lawrence. "Easy."

Montgomery County usually has a waiting list with five or six people on it.

But a waiting list 925 names long is rare, to say the least.

"That's unreal," said Jennifer Mulroney, who supervises monitoring in Lancaster County, where there has never been a waiting list.

"Wow," said Joshua Mangle, who oversees house arrest in Montgomery County.

"Looks like [electronic monitoring] is very popular in Allegheny County," said Mr. Lawrence.

Allegheny County's list is long partly because the county often leads the state in arrests for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In 2009, 5,208 people were arrested on DUI charges here, compared with 4,748 in Philadelphia County, said Catherine Tress, director of the Pennsylvania DUI Association's Western Pennsylvania office.

The association works to address the DUI problem, from prevention, to enforcement, adjudication and rehabilitation. DUI offenders make up the bulk of people required to wear the anklets, said Mr. Scherer.

Population size, prosecutorial policies and judicial decision-making can also influence how many people a county monitors.

For those reasons, comparing monitoring caseloads is like comparing "apples and oranges," Mr. Mangle said.

While Montgomery County is the third largest in the state, officials there monitor just 64 people at any time.

"Our court of judges aren't too keen on using house arrest commonly," Mr. Mangle said.

Allegheny County needs house arrest, said Judge Manning. The punishment is an alternative to a jail sentence, and without it, following mandatory minimum sentencing requirements would inundate the county jail.

"And there is no room without building a bigger jail facility," Judge Manning said.

The anklets Allegheny County uses are not GPS-enabled. But they do allow the probation department to monitor the comings and goings of an offender, comparing their movement to the times they are permitted out.

The probation department enters into a computer a range of times when the offender is permitted out, such as for work, drug and alcohol treatment, church services or medical appointments.

The department places a receiver in the offender's house. When the offender is within a certain range of it, the receiver emits a signal. When the person is out of range, the signal stops.

Employees at a monitoring center staffed 24 hours a day watch a central screen and notify officials if the signal stops. Then, probation officers can be sent out.

Mr. Scherer has managed the waiting list as best he can, he said. When people are sentenced to monitoring, the department designates them as posing a low, medium or high level of risk to the community.

High-risk offenders and pre-trial defendants -- placed on house arrest while their cases move through the court -- are typically given an anklet within a few days. Jail inmates waiting to be released to house arrest must be given anklets within 72 hours.

But the majority of people sentenced to electronic monitoring are low-risk offenders charged with crimes such as driving under the influence, drug possession or retail theft. They wait.

In the interim, almost all of them are required to start an accompanying probation sentence. For most, that includes a curfew.

For DUI offenders, it might include treatment classes and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Probation sentences are less restrictive than monitoring would be, said Mr. Scherer.

"Most people aren't anxious to come on the ankle bracelet," he said.

Lawyer James Ecker, who has represented a few clients who had to wait for an anklet, said it can be frustrating for them.

"But you can only do what you can do," he said. "I don't blame anybody for it. There's only so many people and so much equipment."

Recently, the probation department started a program for DUI offenders who would otherwise languish on the list, placing them at a local hotel for four days to undergo all their treatment and counseling. Mr. Scherer said he hopes the program will shorten the list.

The list will also shorten as the flow of backlogged cases slows, Judge Manning believes.

He is watching the list carefully, though. "We want to make sure we're doing what's appropriate," he said.

Vivian Nereim: or 412-263-1413.


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