Home prison? Ankle bracelets won't delay jail growth

TUPELO – Lee County will pursue a costly jail expansion despite its interest in an electronic-monitoring program likely to reduce inmate numbers by at least 10 percent and maybe up to 50 percent.
A look at other communities with similar programs revealed they, too, needed more jail space regardless of the devices’ successes.
Lee County Board of Supervisors last year approved a plan to enlarge the crowded Tupelo-Lee County Adult Jail. The 202-bed facility stays full nearly every day of the year and often houses more prisoners than it should, sparking complaints and lawsuits.
Although the board has yet to decide on a final plan, the jail will either double or triple in size, take two years to build and cost taxpayers between $6 million to $12 million.
In the meantime, Sheriff Jim Johnson wants to launch a program that will strap electronic monitoring ankle bracelets on nonviolent offenders instead of sending them to jail.
When Johnson first pitched the program in March, he said about half the current inmates would qualify. But during a recent interview with the Daily Journal, the sheriff modified that estimate to “only a very minimum number of people who will be eligible.”
“I don’t want anybody to think that, ‘Oh, we can get those ankle bracelets, and we don’t have to add on to the jail,’” Johnson said. “They’ll be an element I’ll be able to use to prevent us from getting into the situation we’re in now. It’s not the solution.”
The program under consideration involves a Tupelo-based company called ADAPTS Electronic Monitoring, which would supply the ankle bracelets and do the monitoring through its two support companies.
Two types of bracelets are available: One tracks a person’s movements; the other detects alcohol through the person’s sweat. Law-enforcement and court officials could check the monitoring records online. Offenders selected for the program pay roughly $12 a day for their own bracelets and monitoring. That’s compared to about $25 a day to house a person in jail.
“They could be used in a situation where you have an individual who is out here working, providing for their family and for whatever reason they go to jail, incarcerated for some crime,” Johnson said. “Instead of waiting in jail for court for months on end, losing their job, not contributing to society, those types of people could be monitored with a bracelet, still work and then come to court.”
Van Hopkins, chief executive officer of ADAPTS, said he believes it can significantly reduce Lee County’s jail population. If nothing else, he said, “it has the potential to … postpone an expansion by depopulating the jail.”
But other communities haven’t avoided such a fate. Athens, Ga., which recently started using electronic bracelets, plans to levy a local option sales tax to expand its 375-bed jail, said Athens-Clarke Court Administrator T.J. BeMent.
And Kane County, Ill., which has used the devices for a decade, opened a new 640-bed jail last year to accommodate its growing prisoner population, said Jeff Jefko, deputy director with the Kane County Probation Department.
“You might be able to delay the inevitable,” BeMent opined, “but as for the pie-in-the-sky dream of not having to expand, I doubt it.”
Still, both communities have benefited. BeMent said he wants to enlarge his nascent program from 15-25 monitored offenders to roughly 50 people at any given time.
“Cost avoidance is cost savings,” he said.
Officials in Kane County know about that. They shaved $1.4 million from their annual budget last year by electronically monitoring 188 defendants instead of housing them in jail.
“A successful EM program will pay for itself, will show a savings to the county because it will reduce the number of days you have defendants sitting in your jail,” Jefko said. “Will it stop you from building a new jail? It didn’t stop us from building a new jail.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.

Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal