In the court system, it isn’t often that criminals get to choose their own sentence.
But that’s what’s happening, in a manner of speaking, in many Washington counties when offenders are sentenced to electronic home monitoring (EHM) instead of jail.
In Pierce County District Court, for example, the offender can choose from 15 private monitoring companies or public agencies that will strap a GPS ankle bracelet on them and uphold the court’s order – usually that offenders only leave their home for work or treatment.
EHM is thriving in Washington state as courts and municipalities looked for ways to cut taxpayer funded jail programs. At any given time, the district court in Pierce County – just one of several courts in the county -- said it has about 180 offenders on home monitoring, producing significant savings: A Pierce County jail cell costs about $65 per day, but electronic home monitoring costs $12-$20 per day and that cost is generally paid by the offender.
Many of the monitoring companies use the same technology to keep tabs on their offenders, but not all EHM companies are equal.
“Defendants will go out and shop for the most lenient company,” said Steve Hopkins, the owner of Stay Home Monitoring, which has operated in Washington state for 17 years.
According to Hopkins, monitoring firms seeking to boost their own business will offer to let offenders out of the house for reasons other than work or treatment.
“I know of one company that was giving four hours a week of free time,” said Hopkins.
The courts typically receive only two notices about the defendants they place on home monitoring – a notice that that an offender has enrolled with the monitoring company and a notice when he has completed the sentence.
Critics of the current system say it’s the business model that can lead to problems. If an EHM company sends the court a notice that an offender has violated his home detention, the company stands to lose its paying customer.
EHM companies have a financial incentive not to report violations to the court and risk sending their client back to jail.
“Clearly, there’s a conflict of interest there,” said state Rep. Matt Shea (R-Spokane Valley).
Earlier this year, Shea unsuccessfully pushed for what would have been the first laws regulating the EHM industry in Washington.
“We can no longer allow people that are sentenced on electronic home monitoring to skirt the system, which is what’s happening,” said Shea, who plans to reintroduce his legislation in the next session.
An example of that involves one of the 15 companies that provide EHM services in Pierce County.
In Lewis County last year, prosecutors got a tip that one of Northwest Home Monitoring’s offenders was allowed to take a 4th of July vacation with his family to the coast. Prosecutors were also told that the offender, John Burkett, has hanging out in bars.
When questioned by the prosecutor’s office, company manager Gary Knutter admitted that he allowed Burkett to take the trip because of his good behavior on EHM.
Lewis County Courts kicked Northwest Home Monitoring out of its EHM program, leaving Stay Home Monitoring as the sole EHM service provider in the county.
After seeing KING 5’s recent report on Northwest Home Monitoring, Pierce County is also evaluating whether it wants to continue to allow the company to provide monitoring for the district court.
Hopkins said the honest players in the business would appreciate regulations to level the playing field. Otherwise, the only companies that thrive in the industry will be those that the criminals choose.
“Because they’re not being held accountable,” said Hopkins.
Watch the full series: Home Free