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GPS Ankle Bracelet Monitoring of Low-Risk Offenders Costs More than Anticipated

Cutting of ankle bracelets is a common occurrence among users, and when offenders don’t pay for unreturned units, taxpayers absorb the financial burden.

(TNS) -- Eight times, Kiara Kiesow was released from custody on bond wearing a court-ordered La Crosse County GPS monitoring device.

And eight times, she cut the unit off her ankle.

“It was like a symbolic ‘(expletive) you’ to La Crosse County,” she said.

In most cases, she was ready to run. Other times, Kiesow removed the anklet when she was around other drug users because it made them skittish. Three of the tracking units still are missing.

“There’s one on the side of 90/94,” she said. “There’s one on top of a house somewhere.”

All offenders supervised by GPS in La Crosse County are responsible for daily supervision fees and the cost of unreturned equipment.

Kiesow owes the county more than $2,500.

“My money is used for drugs,” said Kiesow, a 26-year-old former La Crosse County Jail inmate recently extradited to Indiana on methamphetamine charges. “It’s not to pay (the county’s) justice sanctions.”

La Crosse County criminal justice leaders contend GPS monitoring is a more economical way to supervise lower risk offenders and ensure public safety. The monitoring costs the county about $6 daily per offender; jail is $83.

From 2013 to 2015, offenders granted GPS monitoring removed and lost 84 tracking units and 22 already this year, according to data provided by La Crosse County Justice Support Services, a Human Services section that oversees monitoring. Each unit is $800.

And when offenders don’t pay for unreturned units, taxpayers absorb the financial burden. There is $35,000 worth of missing equipment from last year alone.

“It was an eye opener when we saw the number of units unreturned,” La Crosse County Circuit Judge Scott Horne said. “It’s important we know that information so when they come to court for a decision, it’s something we can take into account.”

Community monitoring

Justice Support Services, formerly Justice Sanctions, began supervising defendants on GPS in 2010 when the technology became affordable. It replaced an electronic monitoring system that could only detect when an offender was within range of a home unit.

“(GPS monitoring) has restrictions that are enforceable. We know when there are violations and we can take action,” Horne said.

Judges can order GPS monitoring for defendants who are released on bond or serving a sentence, or as a sanction for treatment court participants. Also enforced on monitoring are strict restrictions, including house arrest, a curfew or exclusion zones.

“If they’re a true threat to the community, it’s unlikely they will be given the option of electronic monitoring,” Horne said. “On the other hand, if they would have been deemed an appropriate candidate for (work release), it’s likely they will be given electronic monitoring.”

Justice Support Services Manager Rukmini Vasupuram, a former prosecutor who took over the section earlier this year, said it recently provided judges a list of defendants with unreturned units.

“That will be weighed heavily in terms of whether they’re given another opportunity,” Horne said.

About the size of a smartphone, the GPS units are bulky and cumbersome strapped to the ankle. They communicate with satellites and cellphone towers to track offender movement, accurate within seven feet.

A system downloads tracking data every six hours and prepares violation reports for three Justice Support Services specialists overseeing an average of 110 people on GPS monitoring. They’ll know, for instance, whether an offender on house arrest steps outside.

“This is house arrest. Not garage arrest. Not yard arrest,” specialist Roger Curtis said.

Caseworkers respond to minor violations — when offenders fail to charge units or are out of range for short periods, for example — with warnings, decreased incentives and other sanctions.

Judges, prosecutors and the defendant’s attorney are notified of serious infractions, such as when offenders enter exclusion zones or are out of range for more than eight hours.

Judges can bring offenders into court to discuss the importance of compliance and tighten monitoring conditions. For severe violations, they can issue an order to detain, revoke the monitoring and have them jailed.

It’s unlikely defendants who remove and lose a unit will get another chance on monitoring, Horne said.

“I would be reluctant to put someone on electronic monitoring knowing they cut off the unit in the past,” he said. “It’s more likely they will get a cash bond or be confined without release.”

‘They have to be removed’

Offenders can’t block GPS tracking signals by wrapping the unit with electrical tape, tinfoil or any other material, Curtis said. Supervisors can detect whether they’re tampering with the device and receive an immediate alert if an offender severs the fiber optic wires inside the ankle strap.

“You can’t lose them,” Curtis said. “They have to be removed.”

Justice Support Services cannot provide the number of GPS units that defendants lost from 2010-12, when the agency used a different monitoring unit vendor.

In 2013, Justice Support Services revamped policies to retrieve the units, said county associate administrator Jane Klekamp, who oversaw the section since its inception in 1995 until last year. Staff attempt to contact offenders, emergency contacts, landlords or anyone else with information that could help staff recover them if the unit’s battery hasn’t died.

“We’ve had staff and even supervisors go dumpster diving,” Vasupuram said.

The units lost in 2014 and 2015 represent 4 and 6 percent of the total amount of units issued, respectively.

“It’s easy to get frustrated about lost or destroyed units,” Vasupuram said. “Many of these people have criminal thinking issues and make bad decisions, which is what landed them in the system to begin with. But it’s not always worth putting someone in jail or taking away their liberty because of lost equipment.”

‘It doesn’t just go away’

Offenders must pay daily fees for GPS monitoring — $7 if they’re on bond and $12 if they’re serving a sentence.

Justice Support Services collected about 44 percent of daily monitoring fees last year — $77,299 of $175,475 — and about 30 percent in 2012-2014. It collected an additional $248,280 in revenue between 2012-15, including reimbursement for lost units.

Human Services bills clients monthly for daily monitoring fees and the cost of unreturned units. Outstanding payments are sent to collection agencies.

“It doesn’t just go away,” Vasupuram said.

But offenders are often unemployed and indigent, making collection difficult, she said.

“They don’t have the means,” Horne said.

“It was an eye opener when we saw the number of units unreturned. It’s important we know that information so when they come to court for a decision, it’s something we can take into account.” Scott Horne, La Crosse County circuit court judge

©2016 the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.