In less than a month, Prince George's County is scheduled to become the first area jurisdiction to use an electronically monitored system of house arrests instead of some jail terms to relieve crowding at the county detention facilities, according to officials.
County Corrections Director Samuel Saxon said that the county has leased the electronic equipment and that the house arrest concept should begin in about three weeks, when he will ask district court judges and domestic relations masters to sentence persons picked up for nonpayment of child support to in-house detention instead of jail. Eventually, Saxon said, he hopes to expand the program to include persons convicted of or arrested for other minor, nonviolent crimes.
Initially, Prince George's will use a system in which an unremovable wrist bracelet worn by participants is inserted into equipment hooked to the home telephone, which then sends a signal to a central computer monitored by corrections employes.
In addition, the corrections officials will make calls to the homes to ensure that participants are present.
"This will not be for serious" offenders, Saxon said. "No one accused of armed robbery, murder, rape or serious assault need apply."
The program has been endorsed by County Executive Parris Glendening, whose approval is necessary to implement it.
The chief Circuit Court judge and the state's attorney have indicated a willingness to try the program. But they all cautioned that the program would not be available to persons charged with serious crimes.
The house arrest concept is relatively new, but more than a dozen jurisdictions are experimenting with different forms of electronic surveillance, according to the U.S. Justice Department. The Virginia Department of Corrections announced last fall that pilot programs will start this year in Fairfax County and Norfolk. C.R. Mastracco, deputy director of Adult Community Corrections, said the program will begin July 1 in the two jurisdictions.
"It will give us a positive means of identification," said Al Hall, who heads the pretrial services for the corrections department and is putting the program together. And in the case of persons arrested for nonpayment of child support, Hall said, the system will enable judges and domestic relations masters to know whether those persons who claim they cannot pay child support because they do not work "mysteriously disappear for eight hours every day."
Saxon said the program, if successful, should help the county to avoid crowding in the jail.
The current jail is under a court-imposed population limit of 425 persons, he said. Last Friday, Saxon said, the inmate population was 411. A new county jail, with a capacity of 596, is scheduled to open in the fall.
"We need sentencing alternatives, no question about that," said Chief Circuit Court Judge Ernest A. Loveless, who added that Prince George's jail has had problems with crowding, although not to the extent of the D.C. Jail.
State's Attorney Arthur Marshall said that "innovative ideas are always good to look at."
But Marshall said that for some persons, including those who fail to make child-support payments, jail is the best answer.
"If a person is in the program for failing to make support payments, is he going to be concerned enough to pay?" Marshall asked rhetorically. "You'd be surprised how quickly some of these people come up with money once they are in jail."
The Corrections Department already has leased enough equipment to have up to 25 persons in the program, at a cost of about $12,000, he said. That money was appropriated in the current fiscal year, Saxon said, and no additional funds are requested for the program in the 1987 budget.
Saxon said people will volunteer for the program, to avoid any question about violating the participants' constitutional rights. And although the participants will be charged an undetermined fee to help cover the costs of the program, he said, the department will absorb the costs for indigents.
In Clackamas County, Ore., where a similar program has been in place for about a year, Corrections Director Terry Gassaway said the system is paying for itself.
"It puts the individual in the community," Gassaway said. "They are paying their own way, paying taxes, plus paying $7 a day to be in the program. And, of course, it opens up beds for us."
Gassaway said that since last April, 70 persons have been in the program, all of them volunteering after being convicted of various crimes.
Only three persons were taken out of the program early, Gassaway said, two because of drinking problems, a third because of a heroin problem.
"It's really worked well for us," Gassaway said. "I think within three years every corrections program will be using some form of electronic surveillance."