Douglas County Commission approves post-conviction house-arrest program

Douglas County commissioners on Wednesday unanimously approved a post-conviction house-arrest program that will give the county another alternative to incarcerating inmates in the Douglas County Jail.

Robert Bieniecki, the county’s criminal justice coordinator, said the program would be an extension of the house-arrest sentencing option already available to judges in Lawrence Municipal Court and Douglas County District Court, but would also be innovative.

Currently, the courts can offer house arrest through electronic monitoring devices provided by bail bondsmen for an upfront fee of $150 to $200, which has greatly limited the option’s use, Bieniecki said. The new program would have the county provide monitoring devices at no cost to inmates who can’t afford to pay that fee.

“That’s innovative,” Bieniecki said. “Most jurisdictions request money for house arrest.”

Bieniecki proposed that the program use the same vendor of electronic monitoring devices that supplies the county’s pretrial release program. The vendor offers a lease-for-service arrangement in which it monitors the devices and alerts the county if an offender has strayed beyond an allowable boundary or has removed a device, he said.

Should the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office no longer have to house inmates in the jails of other counties because of overcrowding at the Douglas County Jail, Bieniecki said, that portion of the program could be re-examined. But even then, the expense of providing the monitors would be less than the average $75 a day it costs to keep an inmate in the jail, he said.

Also included in the program is the hiring of a new full-time officer to monitor offenders. The new position will cost the county $68,965 per year in salary and benefits and $23,500 in one-time costs for a vehicle and equipment.

The program would be introduced for second- and third-time DUI offenders, but could be expanded to other low-level offenses, Bieniecki said. It wasn’t known how many people would qualify for the program because no records were kept about the ability of convicted offenders to pay for electronic monitoring. The county would probably only learn that number when the program was in place, he said.

Bieniecki said the program would be available for both juvenile and adult offenders.

Commissioners noted that the program would join a list of other recent criminal justice initiatives — such as the Behavioral Health Court, a pretrial diversion program and law officer mental health crisis intervention training — as well as more established programs that provide alternatives to jail time.

“It’s a great addition to our ever-growing tool box of alternatives to incarceration,” Commissioner Nancy Thellman said.

Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said contingency funds in the 2017 budget would provide the money needed to get the program started this year. However, he said the program could save money or break even by reducing the need to house inmates in other counties.

As for the 2018 budget, the house arrest program’s expenses would be exempt from tax lid implications because it was a law enforcement function, Weinaug said.

The county would start advertising for the monitoring officer job in the next week, Bieniecki said. He said the program should be operating in late June or early July.