NEWFANE -- Having made a successful pitch to state officials, Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark will get a chance to drastically improve the way suspects and convicted offenders are monitored statewide.
Clark has received the go-ahead for a two-year pilot project testing a new electronic-monitoring system designed to provide 24/7 tracking of a suspect’s whereabouts while he or she is on home detention.
The effort will receive $200,000 in state funding in fiscal year 2015. Clark believes if the program eventually spreads across Vermont, it will bring both social and financial benefits.
"This is going to save the state a significant amount of money," he said.
Electronic monitoring is a way to keep certain defendants out of prison while still keeping them under close watch. Commonly, a device worn by the defendant is tracked in real time via global-positioning satellites, cellular technology and land-line phones, Clark has said.
Vermont has an electronic-monitoring program, but it has acknowledged flaws: Officials say there are gaps in their ability to respond to violation alerts during some time periods.
The gaps were acknowledged during a recent kidnapping case in Brattleboro, where a Windham County judge declared that "the monitoring provision of the home-detention program doesn’t suffice."
Clark’s idea is to implement a new monitoring system run through his Newfane-based department’s 24-hour dispatching center.
"I’ve got deputies on the road," he said in April when announcing his proposal. "I’ve got a staff that’s willing to take on new challenges."
Clark has held meetings with local prosecutors and court personnel, and the sheriff in April went to Montpelier to pitch a program that would start on a trial basis in Windham County.
He believes the benefits include:
* A more-efficient court system, with fewer prisoner transports required for court appearances.
* Improved public safety through better monitoring of detainees.
* Cost savings: At the initial maximum of 50 detainees/offenders per day, annual state savings would be $991,300, Clark has estimated. That is based on the 2013 cost for out-of-state prison beds contracted by the state Department of Corrections.
"The savings would be higher if utilizing in-state facility cost estimates," Clark wrote in his initial proposal.
Those arguments won favor at the state level, with supporters including Sen. Dick Sears, a Bennington County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Department of Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito.
"The DOC will be assisting the (sheriff’s department) on the implementation of their proposal to monitor people on release (mainly on detention status) in the community," Pallito said in an e-mail to the Reformer. "The DOC will assist the WCSD with an understanding of how electronic monitoring works and provide the contacts of the electronic monitoring providers that we currently use at the state level."
Pallito added that, "if successful, the WCSD program should divert people from entering jail on detention status toward other supervision statuses such as home detention. This would be possible because the WCSD program will offer supervision, 24/7, while in the community."
Clark said the state also has approved an independent evaluation of the pilot program by the Vermont Center for Justice Research.
"I requested that it be done independently so there’s no appearance of bias," Clark said.
Other details of the program still are being settled.
For instance, after reviewing several proposals, the sheriff’s department has selected 3M as the provider for electronic-monitoring equipment. Clark had worn some proposed equipment in order to get first-hand experience with the systems.
He also is in the process of hiring an administrator for the program, and officials must draw up detailed guidelines for its implementation.
"Probably the biggest part is the development of policies, procedures and protocols. That’s probably going to take a couple of months," Clark said. "We want to make sure that whatever we do can be replicated."
Additionally, there will be training and information sessions for everyone involved in the pilot program.
"It’s not as simple as putting a bracelet on somebody’s leg," Clark said. "I’m approaching this with caution -- being careful that we really take our time doing this and do it right from the beginning."
If all goes well, Clark added, officials will begin using the new monitoring system in mid-September.