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Monday, November 12, 2012

Guest Post: How GPS Tracking Technology Could Help Reform Offenders

This piece by Mike Donovan, founder and executive director of Nexus Programs, should appear as an op-ed in the Daily News-Record later this week. A community forum on this topic is set for noon Monday, November 19, at the Massanutten Regional Library. Please come!

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Jail overcrowding is a serious issue here in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. Our local jail is rated to hold 208 inmates, but the actual number of inmates reaches nearly double that number at times. In our quest to reduce crime, we have not properly balanced our community’s need to maintain public safety with that of developing ways to lower recidivism and reenter offenders effectively into our community. The result is more warehousing of offenders, with each of us taxpayers footing the bill.

There are many strategies that can be implemented to reduce jail overcrowding. One such strategy is to use technological advances to mitigate risks associated with releasing offenders back into the community. We’ve all seen the type of GPS technology worn by celebrity offenders like Lindsay Lohan on national news programs, but this technology is also available in our community. Instead of spending upwards of $70 a day to house each inmate in our local jail, we could force some of these offenders to pay their own costs of monitoring and become contributing members of society. Even a modest number of 100 fewer inmates in our jail would save taxpayers $7,000 A DAY! That is over $2.5 million a year. Do I have your attention yet?

It is sometimes necessary to incarcerate offenders in order to protect the public and hold offenders accountable. Punishment through incarceration is real, tangible, and dramatic, something we can point to in order to help crime victims feel a sense of justice, and it fosters a real and specific deterrent. There is little mystery as to why we utilize incarceration so much. As a Judge who handles criminal trials told me a few years ago, the system certainly isn’t perfect, but it is what we have.

But while our crime rates remain steady or are actually decreasing, our prisons are bursting at the seams, and we observe a depressingly high recidivism rate. At some point we must stop repeating the same policies of the past and honestly assess how well our current strategy is working. Might many of the offenders we are warehousing be simply learning to become better criminals? Left with nothing to do but play cards and watch television, inmates share their stories and learn from each others’ “mistakes,” thus turning our jails into schools of criminal behavior that graduate students at an ever increasing rate.

There are other options we might employ to more effectively manage our pre-trial and post sentencing offender populations. Organizations like the one I represent, Nexus Programs, are examples of such options. At Nexus, we use GPS satellite tracking technology to monitor criminal defendants both before their trials and after they are sentenced. Judges order whatever conditions they see fit, from total house arrest to general monitoring. We can even set geographic boundaries around specific areas that the offender is not allowed to visit. Defendants are tracked in real time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The best thing about monitoring through our program is that the services are completely offender funded. That’s right, no taxpayer funds go to monitoring these defendants. Remember that $7,000 a day, or $2.5 million a year? Can you think of better ways we might spend that money?

Our organization is taking part in an upcoming community forum on this issue sponsored by the local Fellowship of Reconciliation, the fourth in a series on criminal justice issues held there over the past two years. Invited panelists include myself, a representative from the bail bond industry that offers similar technology, and a Clerk of Court and national expert on these issues from our neighboring state of North Carolina. 

Please join us Monday, November 19, from 12-1:30 pm at the Massanutten Regional Library in Harrisonburg for a community conversation on how we can better manage the correctional issues our community faces and put some of that $7,000 a day, or $2.5 million a year, back in the pockets of taxpayers like you and me.
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