Electronic monitoring technology is carving a niche in a corrections industry desperate for relief in its burgeoning prisons and jails.

Electronic monitoring has been around for decades, but has greatly improved since the 70s and 80s. Today, the technology is providing alternatives to incarcerating minimum-security offenders, drunk drivers, parolees and probationers.

Nationwide, about 100,000 low-risk offenders are being monitored electronically. A few agencies are using GPS to monitor sex offenders' whereabouts. Many more are using a presence/absence electronic monitoring device with a remote alcohol-testing device, like the Sobrietor.

Presence/absence monitoring devices don't track an offender's every movement, but they can tell police whether the offender is home when he/she should be. The presence/absence radio frequency device is placed on the offender's ankle and transmits a continuous electronic signal to a receiver that sits in the offender's home. The receiver is connected via a phone line to a central monitoring computer. The new technology has digitally encoded and encrypted signals, making it virtually impossible for an offender, even a sophisticated one, to duplicate the signal or trick the system the way offenders did in the past.

The Sobrietor, developed by Behavioral Interventions, is becoming more popular as a tool to track convicted drunk drivers without putting them behind bars. Because a good percentage of offenders have problems with alcohol, some jurisdictions use it on all offenders in the monitoring program.

What makes the Sobrietor popular is that a trained officer isn't needed to operate it, as is the case with Preliminary Breath Testing (PBT) units police use for roadside sobriety tests. The PBTs were also used in early efforts to monitor offenders. The new device, which looks like a cross between a hairdryer and a speed gun, has a voice verification system that identifies the user, according to Jock Waldo, vice president of Behavioral Interventions.

The device can be plugged into an electronic monitoring ankle unit or used independently, and can be programmed to test the offender randomly or at predetermined times. The unit will ring like a telephone and the offender must then provide a breath sample. The unit identifies the user, tests for toxicity and transmits the results through a phone line.

Unlike alcohol testing devices of the past, the new equipment has proven trustworthy. "We used to spend a good 50 to 60 hours a week just taking alcohol tests because the equipment told us [falsely] that it was positive," said Marsha Engel, director of Montgomery County, Maryland's Comprehensive Alcohol Rehabilitation and Treatment (CART) program. The time savings allows Engel and her staff to spend more time counseling the 45 offenders being monitored in the CART program.

Michigan has nearly 3,000 offenders being monitored electronically, and about 80 on the Sobrietor. The latter number will grow as more units and training become available.

While Maryland sees its CART program as a treatment oriented program, Michigan sees electronic monitoring as a way to save money and manage large numbers of low-risk offenders.

"What we try and do throughout the criminal justice system is classify people to the custody level that we think is appropriate and that we think they can handle because the higher the custody level, the higher the cost," said Dick Irrer of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

The average cost for incarceration of one inmate is approximately $55, depending on the custody level. The cost of monitoring an individual electronically is $7 to $8 per day, plus upfront costs like the individual monitoring devices, which cost approximately $1,800 each. In addition, Michigan has its own monitoring system comprised of two computers that cost roughly $80,000 nearly five years ago, according to Irrer.

Thus far, electronic monitoring has proven it can help reduce the number of low-security prisoners behind bars. But the systems may be limited by several factors. For example, GPS is expensive, difficult to use and can be unreliable in its coverage. A more efficient GPS system is probably two to three years away. The presence/absence systems are effective but are labor intensive in terms of the staff it takes to monitor the offenders - most county agencies operate with 25 offenders per officer, while some states allow 40 to 50 offenders per officer.

Even so, the remote alcohol-testing device is forging ahead and proving itself a valuable tool, especially for keeping tabs on convicted drunk drivers.

Jim McKay, Editor  |  Editor