Dead batteries let offenders escape GPS monitoring



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Posted on May 12, 2014 at 10:24 PM

Updated Monday, May 12 at 10:57 PM

The City of Fife agency that monitors about 90 offenders sentenced to electronic home monitoring was unable to detect violations by some of those convicted criminals because the technology used by the city couldn't detect when the batteries powering an offender's GPS bracelet died.

“We have to do a better job of staying on top of that,” said Fife Municipal Court Judge Kevin Ringus, who oversees Fife’s electronic home monitoring (EHM) program.

Fife launched an investigation after the KING 5 Investigators revealed in February that a Pierce County man, sentenced to home detention on a theft charge, was able to remove his bracelet undetected. The man asked that his identity be shielded, and KING 5 agreed to simply identify him as "Red."

Ringus said a three-day review of Fife’s system, in cooperation with manufacturer Omnilink, revealed that court employees weren’t using the full capabilities of the GPS tracking system.

“There’s some additional training that we were needing, and we got that subsequent to your story. So we have some enhancements we’ve made. We have a different bracelet now [with which] we can alert the person differently,” said Ringus.

Ringus said under the old software configuration, EHM employees couldn’t see the battery levels on the tracking bracelets that offenders are required to wear around their ankles. The EHM employees monitor those devices to determine if the offender is at home, work or treatment at the scheduled time.

Ringus said when the staff punched up Red’s monitoring screen on the computer, they may not have seen that he had a dead battery for at least a couple of weeks.

“When we thought he had battery life left in his unit, in fact he didn’t,” said Ringus.

Ringus says there’s no reason to believe that other offenders “tested the limit” like Red and let their batteries die. But the KING 5 Investigators found other evidence that Fife is not keeping a tight leash on the EHM offenders under its watch.

The Pierce County District court uses a separate EHM system to monitor 180 offenders, about twice the number in Fife’s program. The district court administrator’s office says 500 violation notices have been filed with the court against EHM offenders since the beginning of last year. In that same perioud, Fife’s EHM program only violated 3 offenders, according to records obtained by KING 5.

Violations typically involve offenders who are not making their curfew or not responding to calls from the monitoring office.

Ringus said it’s not always fair to compare different courts.

“It may be the difference in offenders. I’m not sure who they’re monitoring, versus who we monitor,” said Ringus.

But Steve Hopkins, the former jail superintendent in Grays Harbor County who now owns the private company Stay Home Monitoring in Aberdeen, questioned Fife’s low numbers.

“Only three violations? I would say somebody is probably not doing their job,” said Hopkins.

KING 5’s “Home Free” investigations have revealed how private home monitoring companies, and even programs run by public agencies like Fife's, are unlicensed and unregulated in Washington state. A bill that would have created the state's first laws covering electronic home detention died in a legislative committee earlier this year.

But after KING 5’s stories about the problems in the industry, a legislative work group was formed.  It will begin studying the issue in June and could propose a new bill for the next legislative session.