Hattiesburg: Grant to aid ankle bracelet system

By The Associated Press

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — Forrest County Youth Court officials say a newly acquired ankle bracelet monitoring grant will benefit youth offenders, especially those whose families can’t afford to pay for the monitoring.

Youth Court Judge Mike McPhail said the grant will pay up to $80,000 over the course of a year to put youth offenders on house arrest before adjudication. He said the other option for underage suspects for felonies — such as burglary — is to be locked up until the case’s disposition.

“We’re trying to be less disruptive,” McPhail said.

He said the monitoring system allows youths to remain in school, in a home environment or employed before their cases come before the court.

“We have used the court monitoring systems before. Largely, though, it has been at the cost of the parent.”

McPhail also said he looks forward to testing the effectiveness of the ankle bracelet system on a larger scale, as it hasn’t seen as much use as it could have since the court began using the global positioning system it now uses in 2007.

He said that when writing the grant, he and other officials estimated an average of 15 youths would be eligible for the ankle bracelet monitoring each month.

County Prosecutor Pam Castle said before the grant went into effect at the beginning of 2011, juvenile offenders eligible for the monitoring systems were often required to be incarcerated instead because of the tight financial situation of their parents.

The monitoring costs $10 per day, said Tiffany Englade, associate director of Court Programs Inc. The private business contracts with the youth court, providing the global positioning system-enabled ankle bracelets to the court.

McPhail said not every youth offender is released on house arrest.

“What you have to look at when making the determination is the severity of the offense, and if the child is a danger to himself or the community,” he said.

McPhail said the court uses a “risk matrix,” which creates a point-based system taking many issues into account when determining whether a youth offender is eligible for the ankle bracelet monitoring.

He said the ankle bracelet system, even before the new grant came into effect, helps the rehabilitative mission of the youth court by keeping tabs on offenders who aren’t locked up.

“Sometimes, these kids can dominate a relationship and the parent will say, ‘Well, I can watch them,’ but they can’t do it.”

He said the bracelets help determine whether to allow a child accused of a felony to continue his or her education while being closely monitored. In the past, the youths were released or incarcerated pending trial.

“The community expects also to be protected from any type of criminal offender,” McPhail said.

And Castle said although the grant only applies to pre-adjudication suspects, the implementation of the ankle bracelet system has helped the court properly sentence youth offenders without interfering with their education.

“It affects what we can recommend and the detention aspects of it,” she said. “I can see a lot of benefit in it there.”

Explaining that sentencing guidelines for juveniles are more flexible than those for adults, Castle said the house arrest system provides benefits that include avoiding the need to schedule youth detention time around weekends and school holidays.

“Now we have the option to detain them, but they’re still in their home environment,” she said.

Castle said the new, GPS ankle bracelets can be programmed for times and places specific to each offender, allowing them to be at school during the appropriate hours and at home after school.

Before the GPS system, the court used ankle bracelets that linked wirelessly to a central unit kept in the home of the offender, which connected to a telephone line. The older system was implemented about eight years ago, Castle said.

“The difference in the two of them is amazing,” Englade said, explaining that in addition to the ability to program the bracelets for time and place, youth court counselors can use the devices to speak to the offenders like a cell phone.

“With these, we can tell where they are at all times,” Englade said.

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Information from: Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com