Tuesday, June 4, 2019 by Jack Craver

Travis County sees big increase in electronic monitoring

Travis County has seen its incarcerated population drop dramatically in recent years, due in large part to policy changes aimed at keeping low-level drug offenders out of jail.

As of April 2019, the average daily jail population stood at 2,143, a 9 percent decrease from five years ago. Between 2014-18, the number of people booked into jail fell 18 percent, from 51,724 to 42,567. Most dramatically, the number of individuals who were arrested for a class C misdemeanor – the lowest-level offense – declined 42 percent during those four years, from 9,657 to 5,589.

Not only are fewer people going to jail, but those who are arrested are spending fewer days behind bars as they await trial or (more likely) wait to negotiate a plea deal. While three-quarters of those who are booked into jail are released on personal recognizance bonds that do not require cash bail, an increasing number are being released on condition that they wear an electronic monitoring device.

“The use of electronic monitoring technologies is an option or alternative to detaining pretrial defendants in the county jail,” said Rudy Perez, director of the Pretrial Services department, which is responsible for evaluating defendants and recommending their bond conditions.

“Pretrial Services will evaluate the use of EM technologies in reducing the county’s jail population. There has been an increase in the number of pretrial defendants released on bond with an EM condition in the last few years,” Perez added.

There are three types of electronic monitoring: GPS, for those law enforcement wants to keep tabs on at all times; simple radio frequency bracelets, which confirm whether a user is at home if they are under house arrest or subject to a curfew; and SCRAM alcohol-monitoring devices, which detect alcohol in perspiration and are given to some who are required to avoid alcohol as a condition of probation or bail.

The county pays for the cost of RF monitoring, but only pays for GPS or SCRAM devices if the defendants are deemed indigent. GPS monitoring costs $9.70 per person per day, compared to $9.50 for SCRAM and $2.70 for RF devices.

The county is currently soliciting a new contract for the RF devices. A memo to the commissioners court from the county Planning and Budget Office said that the lowest bid was $5.50 a day, nearly twice what the county has been paying. However, county staff later informed the Austin Monitor that that information was incorrect (the bid is lower) and that information relating to the bids should never have been publicly disclosed.

A county memo says that about 26 percent of the 220 people using GPS devices and 22 percent of the 450 with SCRAM devices are indigent.

The big increase in electronic monitoring just over the past year caught the county off guard. At the May 28 meeting of the Travis County Commissioners Court, county staff said the $364,608 that had been budgeted for the 2019 fiscal year was going to fall far short of covering the total costs. Staff requested the commissioners approve another $425,000 to make it through the end of the fiscal year, which they unanimously approved.

However, Commissioner Brigid Shea wondered why the county does not make defendants pay for RF devices if they are not indigent. Stacy Brown, division director of Pretrial Services, replied that that has simply always been the case. It’s only with the newer technologies – GPS and SCRAM – that the county had begun asking defendants to pony up.

“We’ve always seen it as the defendant being released from jail on a pretrial case, kind of innocent until proven guilty, and so we have paid for the RF,” said Brown.

Whether or not the county is paying for the devices, electronic monitoring is much cheaper than jail. Budget staff at the meeting estimated that the county spends about $113 per day per inmate at the jail.

This story has been updated since publication.

Photo by Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick / Bracelet électronique / CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.

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