At least 11 defendants awaiting criminal trials in the District in the past year were charged with violent crimes after being released from jail through the court system’s electronic monitoring program.
According to statistics from the District’s Pretrial Services Agency, of 1,351 defendants who were released with GPS ankle bracelets to track their movements, 110 were arrested and charged with new crimes. Nearly a dozen crimes were violent, including armed robbery, assault and attempted child sex abuse. In past years, defendants in the program have been charged with murder and rape.
The Jan. 29 arrest Tuesday of Javon Hale has brought new scrutiny to the District’s electronic monitoring program. Hale, 18, was charged in two shootings and a kidnapping over three days in December that left one man dead and two others badly wounded. Hale had been released from jail in November while awaiting trial for a 2010 killing.
Hale’s arrest while under GPS supervision is not unique, the statistics show. The numbers of arrests among electronically monitored defendants in the District are not wildly higher than in other cities with similar programs, and they have dropped from previous years. But the arrests highlight the difficult choice that judges, attorneys, prosecutors and other officials face as they consider when and whether to put defendants back on the streets while they await trial.
With crowded jails and halfway houses and a backlogged court docket, electronic monitoring gives judges and court officials another option for keeping track of defendants’ whereabouts.
It’s a decision they weigh heavily.
“It’s one of my biggest fears,” one D.C. Superior Court judge said after Hale’s arrest in January. “No judge wants to release someone and have that person commit a violent crime while on release.”
Judges have wide discretion to release defendants who are awaiting trial, either with a simple promise to return to court, with a curfew, to a halfway house or into the GPS program. Judges consider the nature of the crime and criminal records, and look at whether a pattern of violence or a history of skipping court appearances makes a defendant ineligible. They also consider whether the defendant has a job or is a flight risk or danger to the community.
Even those charged with murder and other more serious crimes can be released if prosecutors don’t object. That’s what happened in Hale’s case, in part because he had been in jail awaiting trial for two years when a D.C. Superior Court judge released him.
Judges release some defendants early in the pretrial phase, sometimes at their first hearings. But defendants are occasionally released after long delays to alleviate jail crowding and out of consideration for not keeping defendants locked up indefinitely before their cases are tried.
“We assess the risks as best we can, and they’re not made worry-free,” another judge said. “These things don’t happen often, but there is no real guarantee.”
The judges spoke on the condition of anonymity to retain impartiality in future court cases.
Defendants can be placed on GPS monitoring both before their trial and after release from jail or prison while on probation. Those arrested while awaiting trial have been charged with an array of crimes, some of them violent.
In November, an 18-year-old District man was arrested on charges of burglary and beating a blind, elderly Chevy Chase woman when he broke into her home. According to court records, Tyran Mcelrath was wearing a GPS ankle bracelet from a previous juvenile offense case. The bracelet placed him at the woman’s home at the time of the attack.
And in October, Kevon Austin, an 18-year-old District man who was on probation for a 2010 robbery charge, let the battery in his ankle bracelet drain and did not recharge it, police and court documents say, before he fatally shot Gregory Darnell Troxler, 21, near Gallaudet University.
In prior years, people wearing the bracelets have been charged in homicides. In 2009, Deangelo Foote, 22, a Southwest D.C. man, was charged with fatally shooting a teenager who tried to stop a robbery. Authorities said Foote was wearing a GPS ankle bracelet when he shot Kevin Allen, 17, seven times as Foote tried to rob one of Allen’s friends. Foote was later sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Clifford T. Keenan, director of the District’s Pretrial Services Agency, said the number of individuals on GPS monitoring who were arrested for violent crimes has dropped by more than half since 2010, when there were 26 such incidents. And most defendants were charged with no crimes at all while out of jail.
Keenan said some individuals who want to commit a crime will do so whether they have the electronic device — the size of a pack of cigarettes — on their ankle or not.
“If someone has access to a gun and motive, we can’t prevent them,” Keenan said. “Technology by itself is not a cure for illegal conduct.”