Electronic monitoring proving successful in jail diversion test program, council told

Douglas County Jail

Seven former Douglas County Jail inmates have collectively spent about three months under house arrest through the use of electronic monitoring bracelets since the devices were introduced three weeks ago, the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council was told Tuesday.

The update on the electronic monitoring trial program from Douglas County Court Services was one of two updates that the coordinating council received at its Tuesday meeting. It was also apprised of the early work, mission and goals of the new behavioral health court.

Michelle Roberts, chief operations officer for Douglas County Court Services, said court services received the electronic monitoring devices at no cost from the manufacturer for a 90-day trial. Seven of the devices are in use with an eighth expected to be put in service this week.

The program was introduced Nov. 21 when three inmates were released from the Douglas County Jail with the electronic monitoring devices, Roberts said. So far, the use of the devices has allowed selected inmates to spend 122 days in home settings rather than in jail. In the pre-trial program, the inmates were in jail awaiting trial before being selected for the program, she said.

There is potential to grow the program, but Court Services was taking a cautious approach as it tests the devices and the monitoring service the manufacturer provides, Roberts said. At the end of the 90-day test period, court services would request that the Douglas County Commission approve funding to continue the program.

Mike Brouwer, director of the re-entry program at the Douglas County Jail, said a companion electronic monitoring program would be introduced for inmates serving post-conviction sentences. It has not yet been determined which county agency would be in charge of that program.

The company that is providing the devices for the 90-day trial also provides a monitoring service to track those equipped with the electronic monitors. The company can sound alarms on the devices when a movement violation is detected and also alert the responsible county officials, Brouwer said. County officials will also have the ability to track the devices with computers and cellphones, he said.

Court Services was also making progress on the pre-trial diversion program for low-risk offenders, Roberts said. The program provides monitoring of those diverted from jail to assure they attend scheduled court dates. Roberts said the program is “piggy-backing” on the automated phone system used to inform potential jury members of their commitments.

In her update on the behavioral health court, Sharon Zehr, the court’s team leader, said the court, over which Douglas County District Judge Sally Pokorny presides, is now serving one former inmate. In July, the Douglas County Commission included a $443,000 line item in the 2017 budget to fund the first year of what was then called the mental health court. However, money was found to get the behavioral court off the ground early, Zehr said.

Although the court could eventually have an annual caseload of 30 people with mental illness or substance abuse problems, it is now focusing on those whose persistent mental illness have led to frequent contacts with law enforcement, Zehr said. The court will arrange and monitor the ordered treatment for an individual, she said. The person would likely report back once a week early in the process, but that could decrease to once a month if the individual has been diligent about attending treatment appointments and staying on prescribed medications, she said.

Coordinating council member Edith Guffey said the number seemed low given that 30 percent of the jail’s population was diagnosed with mental illness.

“In my time on the council, there has been a lot of discussion on the number of people in the system because of mental illness,” she said. “If that is true, why would the number be so low of people in the mental health court?”

Part of the answer was the nature of crime that got an inmate in jail, said Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson. Those alleged to have committed violent crimes or sex crimes would not be eligible for behavioral court, nor would non-Douglas County residents be eligible, he said. First-time or infrequent low-level offenders probably would be offered other diversion options, he said.

It is anticipated that 18 percent of the jail’s population would be eligible for the behavioral health court, Brouwer said.

In other news, Robert Bieniecki, coordinator of the coordinating council, said the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office data analyst position, which is to coordinate data from the county jail and criminal justice system, had been filled and the person would start next week. The data that person provides will aid the coordinating council’s subcommittees, especially those exploring the high number of people of color incarcerated in the county jail or involved with its criminal justice system.

The coordinating council will next meet at 11 a.m. Jan. 31 at the Douglas County Courthouse.