In coming weeks, Howard County intends to initiate video-monitored home detention of some of its "low-risk" prisoners, starting with about five current inmates of the county detention center, corrections director Gerald McClellan said.

The system uses video screens hooked to telephones, which allow officers at the detention center to view offenders at their residences. The initial cost for the equipment is estimated at $3,000, which will be defrayed in part with $7.50-a-day fees paid by the detainees.

"The only people participating in it will be inmates assigned to work release," McClellan said. "The person will report home from work and check in with us" via the video phone, he said. Work release counselors also will visit the homes.

Howard is one of the last jurisdictions in the Baltimore-Washington region to begin home monitoring, seen as a cost-saving measure that reduces jail crowding and helps rehabilitate nonviolent offenders serving short sentences.

Home monitoring in Howard actually began during the past year, using a slightly different system, when two Howard judges sentenced two men to home detention as an alternative to jail.

That system relied on electronic bracelets that send out signals monitored by a private contractor, Home Confinement Services Inc. That company is one of three Rockville-based monitoring firms that contract with corrections departments in Maryland.

The video system McClellan hopes to launch shortly is in use in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.

Under the video system, when the work-release prisoner receives a telephone call from the detention center, the detainee activates a small, two-way monitor and poses for it to record his presence at home. In most home detention programs, prisoners are expected to remain at home when not at work but may make other authorized trips.

Prisoners must have been incarcerated in the detention center for at least 30 days and must be within 90 days of discharge to be eligible for home monitoring, McClellan said. Their participation must be approved by the sentencing judge, he said.

McClellan said his department intends to start with five volunteer prisoners and increase the number if the system works well.

A $13.4 million expansion of the detention center is planned to accommodate an increase in prisoners that is largely the result of increased drug arrests. The jail population increase has crowded the center -- built to accommodate 108 inmates -- to twice its capacity.

Home detention saves the county about $50 a day per prisoner in detention costs, said J. Thomas Kent Jr., president of Home Confinement Services. His firm charges the prisoner $4 to $13 a day, depending on income, he said.

Kent's electronic bracelets, with a range of 150 feet, send signals about every minute to monitors attached to the prisoners' home phones, which in turn are connected to the firm's computer.

The computer keeps track of the times and dates that the prisoner breaks contact with the monitor, said Kent, whose firm monitors about 20 prisoners for corrections departments in this area.

Judges use monitoring systems for some white-collar criminals because they "want to rehabilitate these people as best we can," Kent said. "They are permitted to go to work because we want them out of jail working, maintaining their dignity" and off the backs of taxpayers, he said.

Home monitoring also is a useful tool for pregnant or seriously ill prisoners, he said.

"The name of the game is rehabilitating these people, and keeping the ones who are threats to public safety in jail," Kent said.

Corrections officials are "trying to free up bed space," he said. "They are trying to get people out of jail who have done time, whose attitude is good and who know they are going to be released shortly. They want to feed them back into society, but don't want to do it quickly."

Nationally, 10,000 to 15,000 prisoners are on home monitoring, Kent said.

"I picture ourselves as an extention of state parole and probation operations," Kent said. "Judges can let people go on monitoring as an alternative sentence and the people can be intensely supervised."