MISSOULIAN Technology may help jail overcrowding July 2, 2007 By CHELSI MOY of the Missoulian Cutting-edge technology is part of the answer to Missoula County's jail overcrowding problem, Sheriff Mike McMeekin says. Finding alternative solutions to jail is no longer optional, but a necessity, he said. In fact, the public safety sector is moving away from adding jail beds in favor of other, unconventional approaches. Communities nationwide are relying more and more on gadgets that track and monitor offenders who live outside the walls of a jail. Last week, Missoula Correctional Services Inc., which operates the pre-release center and many of the alternative-to-jail programs in the city, signed a contract with a Missoula-based company to begin using satellite tracking of criminal offenders. The use of global positioning systems to track accused - or convicted - offenders is not new. Billings does it. Heavily populated urban states have done it for five years. Part of the reason the rest of Montana was slow to jump on the new technology was because it didn't work well in rural areas, said Bill Slaughter, former director of Montana's Department of Corrections. Now AquilaVision, which works out of the MonTECH center in Missoula, has joined with another Missoula-based company, Invizeon, to create a GPS offender tracking system focused on rural areas. An offender wearing a GPS monitoring bracelet around their ankle is tracked by a satellite. That information is then recorded and transferred using cell phone towers, which can then be uploaded on any computer in real time. So as long as the offender is within Verizon cell phone coverage, authorities can track their whereabouts. If the offender runs off, gets too close to their victim's residence or cuts off the bracelet, an automated emergency notification goes out to the 9-1-1 dispatch center, local police, the sheriff and sometimes even the victim. “This is the future,” said Slaughter, who now works for the Missoula-based company that produces the GPS tracking devices. Determining to what extent Missoula County can take advantage of these services is part of the responsibility of Margaret Borg, former chief public defender, now on contract to find ways to ease overcrowding at the county jail. Thirty-five offenders in 18 Montana counties already are monitored by the GPS offender tracking program, Slaughter said. Of those, six reside in Missoula County. Besides Missoula, six other Montana counties may sign up for GPS tracking within the week, he said. Missoula currently uses electronic monitors, which are useful in home-arrest cases, said Sue Wilkins, executive director of Missoula Correctional Services Inc. Authorities know when they walk away from their homes, but the problem is that you don't know where they go. Increased tracking ability “may allow the county and courts to move some people out of jail, which they may not be willing to do otherwise,” Wilkins said. Montana's rural landscape is not the only thing keeping counties from taking full advantage of this advanced technology. There's always a cost involved, said Mike Sehestedt, deputy Missoula County attorney. The argument in support of many alternative-sentencing and pre-trial programs is the social benefit. Keeping inmates out of jail allows them to keep their health insurance, a job, their home and continue to make payments that would otherwise become a burden on state taxpayers. But public officials are always a little skeptical of new technology when the taxpayers are footing the bill, Sehestedt said. “They are probably pretty slick, as long as they work as advertised,” he said. “To the extent that technology is a force multiplier, I think, yes.” But the solution to the Missoula County jail's overcrowding problems is not as simple as strapping a tracking device to an offender's ankle. Part of the solution includes encouraging law enforcement to cite and release more offenders, providing those who are jailed with more opportunities to post bail, and increasing the limited number of offenders who qualify for supervision within the community. So while GPS monitoring is not an end-all answer, “it's fair to say that as technology gets better, the criminal justice system will be using it as a viable alternative form of supervision,” Sehestedt said.