This week, I have been writing about alternative sentencing and drug court. My perspective is shaped by experiences as a “community outreach” worker, witnessing the gaming that takes place when non-profits and private companies are granted fat government contracts with little oversight to monitor and provide therapy to offenders in the community. We are playing with fire whenever we turn over important government duties, like protecting the public, to private individuals – especially when there is no oversight.

Community control supervised by private companies and non -profits have become the status quo, however – and now community monitoring has become one of those things, in our twisted judicial system, that is increasingly viewed as a defendant’s right.

There is much more to say on the subject of drug courts, and I will try to get back to it at some point during May, “National Drug Court Month.” There have also been serious incidents lately, in Atlanta and elsewhere, involving people wearing ankle bracelets but committing crime nonetheless. In January, a man wanted for parole violations was spotted at a traffic stop in Alpharetta, Georgia. He tried to flee after a police officer saw his ankle bracelet, and the officer shot him. Derrick Yancey, the former DeKalb County, Georgia police officer charged with double homicide, is still missing after he disabled his ankle monitor and fled. Yancey managed to escape thanks to failures in the monitoring system set up through a private vendor in DeKalb County; failures by DeKalb authorities who were supposed to respond to the alarm – but mostly the failure of the judge who let him go free to await murder charges instead of holding him in prison, where any double-murder suspect belongs. In Southeast Atlanta, a paroled burglar was recently caught exiting a home he was burglarizing – wearing his ankle bracelet for another crime.

But despite the dangers and scams associated with community monitoring and alternative sentencing, there are successes too. A reader offers the following personal account. His observations about the system are more incisive than a hundred academic studies:

To say I had a “drinking problem” would not come close to describing my situation; it was like calling a field of kudzu “green-space.” I was convicted of DUI, while being a Habitual Offender – 3 DUI’s in 5 years. I was looking at a year, easy, in prison. My lawyer, on his own, had me “evaluated” by an “alcohol/substance abuse counselor.” Basically, he found that I drank a lot, and that I felt my main problem was that I was in jail. He and the attorney came up with a plan, and presented it to me as I was waiting to see the Judge. I was to be monitored with a device that would test my breath’s alcohol level; attend group therapy 2X/week; attend AA 3X/week; be on probation for 5 yrs. I was to pay all costs (which were roughly $650/month in 1994; I noticed during that time an ad for leasing cars, and noted I could have leased a Jaguar for what I was paying). The judge agreed, and I haven’t drank since.

Point is, that ‘proactive’ plan put forth by my attorney saved me: I doubt I would have survived a stay in jail, but if I had, I really doubt I would have stayed sober once out. I cannot say that this course should be normal, common, advised, for anyone else; but it worked for me. And part of the reason it did, was fear: prison was not an attractive option, for me. A couple of weeks sober in the county jail also enabled a few neurons to spark, which gave me enough sense to have some shame of my predicament. By the time of my trial, I was physically, mentally and spiritually ready to try to right my situation.

Now, you really have to experience jail to get how degrading incarceration is for all involved, inmates, staff, everybody. I like to say that of all the people I’ve come across there (numerous overnight to 28 day stays), many may not have been guilty as charged, but none were innocent, either. Probably half that I have seen are not affected, at all, by being locked up: 3 hots & a cot is better than they have been able to provide for themselves, despite all their scheming. Maybe 10% are remorseful, the rest are hoping for their bullshit lines to pull them through. The staffs always manage to make the smallest maneuver degrading, and I’ve found them to be meaner than all but a few inmates: cruelty for the f*** of it. Inept to the point that it has been rare that I have been called by my name at any of the 7/day roll calls. Pisses ’em off big time when I don’t respond to a different name. My point here is I would find “therapeutic jurisprudence” to fit an extremely small segment of the perpetrator population.

I can also pass on my experience with “home monitoring.” That DeKalb deputy that shot his wife and yard man (no affair, the Latino was just at the wrong place, wrong time) had an ankle bracelet, but the monitoring co. didn’t notify the cops for, what? 12 hrs. after he cut it off? It’s an industry, and like all industries has its public face & PR, and the real world, which it only vaguely resembles. They try to do everything on the cheap (hey, it’s the American way), so the equipment, personnel and procedures are all suspect.

In my case, I was sentenced to home confinement, with an alcohol monitor. This machine was hooked up to the phone line, and had a phone receiver, dial pad, 2.5″ screen, and a tube. When the phone rang, I was to blow in the tube between audible beeps. I was to be home from 8PM to 8AM every day; calls would be random during that time. Most often, I’d get one call, say 9PM or 7AM. A couple nights, I got no call at all. I paid $100/wk. (1994) for the service. Same folks provided the group counseling I had to attend (2 nights/wk., $25/each). All went well, for about four months (I was also sentenced to 3 AA meetings/week. Group counselor was in AA, became a great friend/mentor/sponsor; that was his part-time gig).

So, one night, no call. Even though it had happened before, it made me nervous, so I checked the phone: the ‘on’ light was out! I jiggled the wire, and sure enough, it came on. I immediately called my probation officer (PO). He read me the riot act, telling me he knew I’d been fucking up all along, and was looking forward to locking me up (!!!). Who knows exactly where his attitude came from; I was doing all asked of me, and more, had always been respectful, and the first one waiting on him for my weekly appointments (to get in early, and then to work). When I told him of the bad wire, he didn’t give that any credibility, as he said he knew I had been out chasing women (that situation bothered me a heck of a lot more than it did him: Hi, my name is Chris, and I’m a drunk on probation. Wanna go out for coffee while it’s light out? Not a real appealing resume, so I was just biding time, with that).

Next thing I did, call the phone company. Tech – small black guy (reference matters), nonplussed about the machine and its purpose – wrote out a tag stating that it did indeed have a short. Called the monitoring company, left message. Went to work, and with limited access to a phone, called who I could. Went to the AA meeting, and to my surprise, a few members consoled me, and gave me the contact info for a lawyer that was in AA. When I got home, there was a message from the PO that my trial date had been set.

That night, and for the next 90+ days/nights, the machine would ring every 45 min., give or take a couple min. Every night. All night. By the end of a week, my eyes were falling out of my head. At a month, I was an angry knot, walking. At 3 mos., I wanted to kill. Anything, anyone.

The week before court, the lawyer asked me what I wanted out of the case. All I want, I said, is for the PO to join me in a room with the door closed for 10 f****** seconds! Well, no Chris, that can’t happen. OK- I’ll do what I’m sentenced to, but I want that PO out of my life. I want the monitoring co. to admit that their machine may have a problem, and that they fix it if broken. And – they have to go back to the original calling schedule/frequency.

All this, because I noticed, while waiting for the lawyer to finish her business, that an article in the state law review went over a case where it was decided that a probationer only had to obey the judge’s written instructions; verbal instructions were not valid. None of my conditions, aside from monetary fines, were in the original order. We slam-dunked the pissant PO at court. About 12 AA’s were in attendance behind me, along with – the telephone repairman! We all went for coffee at Underground afterward, and I asked him why he showed. He told me the residents of the complex – 99% black, many old, most with kids – told him I looked out for all of them, standing up to the j*******s that tried to push them around.

So, the lessons to me personally were many, but as to the company – they were just assholes. They were pissed as hell at court – all for a shorted wire! Fix your g*****n equipment! I was facing 1.5 years in prison: they needed to spend 10 bucks!

The companies that dealt with me are now dissolved, but records are still there from the GA Secretary of State: In-House Detention Systems, Inc. was the monitoring company. GA Recovery Center- Larry Nolting was the principal there, and his in-laws ran In-House (a fact I was not privy to until my lawyer found it). Nolting later was principal for another corp. that appears to be the successor to In-House, as it was listed at the same address. This corporation dissolved in 2005. So, I’ve stayed sober longer than they stayed in business. But, a Google search showed his address as Jett Rd., which is big money. The Bell South Tech actually called In-House from my apartment when he figured out what was wrong (short in the wire); they tried to get him to say it was something I did.

Join the conversation: