City, state exploring electronic monitoring for first-time DUIs

As faithful readers of the Cops and Courts log know, the usual sentence for first-time offenders of driving under the influence has been a minimum three-day sentence, usually served at the Homer Jail. Under Senate Bill 91, a comprehensive criminal justice bill passed into law in 2015, first-time DUI offenders could start serving jail under house arrest and through electronic monitoring at home.

“It allows for some service on electronic monitoring or a form of home confinement,” said Jeri Fox, Department of Corrections pretrial services director.

No plans have been made yet, and no equipment purchased, but city officials and the Alaska Department of Corrections have started discussions about how and when Homer can offer electronic monitoring, City Manager Katie Koester noted in her Jan. 23 report to the Homer City Council.

“The idea is to keep them (DUI offenders) out of jail and reduce jail numbers,” said Homer Police Chief Mark Robl.

The savings could be substantial. Right now the average cost per day in Alaska for a prisoner is $150. The cost of electronic monitoring is $4.60 a day, “the price of a hamburger,” Fox said.

The state currently collects the cost of imprisonment at the rate of $330 for a three-day DUI sentence and $1,467 for a 10-day sentence. Corrections also is looking at using electronic monitoring for pretrial release of defendants who have not yet gone to trial or sentencing.

The Homer Jail gets some of its funding through the state in its role as a community jail for the lower Kenai Peninsula. Although the jail is a city of Homer operation, it also serves the Homer District Court service area. People charged with crimes in the area by Alaska State Troopers, Homer Police and other law enforcement agencies are taken to the Homer Jail if arrested. Defendants not released on bail who may be in pretrial often get taken up to Wildwood Pretrial Facility in Kenai. Offenders can serve sentences for a maximum of 10 days at the Homer Jail, Robl said.

Kenai already has an electronic monitoring program, as do other large Alaska communities like Anchorage, Palmer and Fairbanks. With the change in SB91 to allow electronic monitoring for first-time DUI offenders, it creates incentives to offer programs throughout the state.

“The idea is to get services up and running that look a little more equal across the state,” Fox said.

Robl said electronic monitoring would be like house arrest. An offender would have to stay home for the sentence. An ankle bracelet worn by the offender sends a signal to a landline unit that keeps track of the person in an area. If he or she leaves, an alert is sent to a dispatch office or a jail officer.

Fox said electronic monitoring also can include geographic positioning satellite devices and even monitors that can sense when someone has consumed alcohol by the chemicals they sweat. New technology is being developed to make electronic monitoring more sophisticated and even done through smart phones.

“We are coming upon an era where there will be an app for that,” Fox said. “That is literally the future.”

In terms of public safety, electronic monitoring frees up staff time for police, jail officers and corrections staff to focus on more serious crimes.

“Every time there’s somebody locked up — especially someone who could be in the community and probably could do well — it’s pulling a resource off the public safety strategy of the community,” Fox said.

Fox said private companies also could do electronic monitoring, with the offender paying the cost to the company.

Electronic monitoring still requires police or jail officers, at least on standby.

“Just because we put you on electronic monitoring, the device is only part of what happens,” Fox said. “The other part is when that alarm happens at 3 a.m., you have to have an officer to respond.”

How and when Homer will get electronic monitoring remains in discussion. Also to be determined are how much a defendant will pay for monitoring.

Robl said he didn’t know how an offender would be monitored. Equipment would have to be installed and staff trained.

“We’re just brainstorming with these communities,” Fox said. “The early communications are all about this. What does your community need? What do you have? What are your challenges?”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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