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COVID-19: How Corrections Department Officials Can Use Electronic Monitoring Systems to Reduce Jail Overcrowding and Keep Communities Safe

As Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) continues to sweep the nation, few people outside the health care sector face more difficult choices on how to deal with this crisis than sheriffs and other corrections department officials who are responsible for managing state, county, city, and other local jails. 

A single facility can house hundreds to thousands of inmates living in close proximity to one another. Some of these inmates are in jail for violent offenses, but many others are awaiting trial or serving sentences for minor, non-violent offenses like petty theft, trespassing or vandalism. In addition, the population includes people who are sick, elderly, or immuno-compromised. These conditions mean that the risk of inmates contracting COVID-19, and potentially needing to be hospitalized, is high.

Health and correctional authorities are concerned that if the inmates in these jails who represent little threat to the public are not released, COVID-19 could spread very quickly through jail populations. However, if they are released, how can corrections departments minimize the probability they will try to flee to avoid their court date, follow the conditions for their house arrest, or otherwise fulfill the terms of their early release? 

Fortunately, electronic monitoring systems provide a path for corrections department officials out of this dilemma with management and oversight capabilities that keep the broader community safe.

How Does Electronic Monitoring Work?

Electronic monitoring systems use ankle bracelets with GPS, cellular, and other location tracking technologies to monitor non-violent offenders’ whereabouts in real-time after they are released. Many of these systems can also alert police and probation officers if an offender leaves an area they have been restricted to or enter an area that has been forbidden to them. 

Using these systems, corrections department officials can dramatically reduce the number of inmates in their jails, lowering the probability that these inmates will contract COVID-19, while also helping them reduce infection rates for the remaining inmates. It also makes it possible for officials to more easily quarantine any inmates who are infected.

Many corrections departments in the U.S. and elsewhere already have offender monitoring programs in place to help them lower their jail administration costs and reduce recidivism among inmates on early release. However, they are now trying to rapidly expand these programs to lower the risk of COVID-19 infections in their jails. For example, city and county jails in Ohio, Virginia, and other states are currently reducing jail overcrowding during the COVID-19 outbreak by releasing non-violent offenders into the general population, while continuing to track their whereabouts with electronic monitoring systems.

A large number of corrections departments, however, still do not have offender monitoring programs in place. Now they’re seeking to quickly implement these programs, so they can reduce jail overcrowding during the COVID-19 epidemic while keeping a watchful eye on the non-violent offenders they release early.

10 Questions to Ask Before Purchasing an Electronic Monitoring System

As these corrections department officials scramble to significantly expand their offender monitoring programs or launch new programs, they are faced with a question they need to answer fast: What should they look for in an electronic monitoring system?

Here are ten questions these officials should ask electronic monitoring system providers as they seek to expand or launch an offender monitoring program.

1)      Does the electronic monitoring system’s ankle bracelets charge quickly and have a long battery life?

  • The less inconvenient an offender finds their ankle bracelet, the more likely they are going to fully comply with all their early release conditions. By using a device with a battery that only needs to be charged every 5-6 days, and that takes around only 30 minutes to fully charge, corrections officials will help make the ankle bracelet device less of an inconvenience for offenders, and these offenders will be more cooperative.
  • Ankle bracelets with only 24-48 hours of battery life and charge times of as long as 2 hours are more likely to lead to offender non-compliance, increasing the time and money spent on the offender monitoring program, and resulting in more offenders having to be put back into jail for non-compliance.

2)      Is the system’s ankle bracelet water-proof and submersible?

  • Ankle bracelets that allow offenders to easily take showers, baths, or even go swimming remove yet another temptation for the offender to remove the device. In addition, even compliant offenders can make mistakes, and sometimes get their ankle bracelet wet. Making the ankle bracelet water-proof and submersible removes the need for officers to visit the offender or have the offender come in for a replacement device if the ankle bracelet accidently gets it wet.

3)      Is connectivity provided by a tier-1 mobile operator?

  • If corrections officials select an electronic monitoring system that uses a mobile operator with weak coverage in their area, they might have difficulty tracking some of their offenders.
  • Corrections officials should look for electronic monitoring systems that use connectivity delivered by one of the leading U.S. mobile operators, who have the infrastructure and financial resources needed to provide extensive wireless coverage in almost all areas of the country.

4)      Does the system offer two-way communication and deliver voice messages?

  • Some electronic monitoring systems allow corrections departments to contact the offender through their ankle bracelet, by triggering it to beep or vibrate. Some even allow the department to send voice commands through it, and then have the offender acknowledge the voice message by pressing a button or calling the monitoring agency.
  • These types of two-way communications provide many benefits to corrections department officials. For example, they can be used to warn offenders if they are approaching the geographic boundaries they need to restrict themselves to, to inform them to charge their ankle bracelet if its battery is starting to run low, or to remind them to come in for a drug test that is required as part of their release.

5)      Does the system include a mobile app?

  • Many police, probation, and other officers might not have easy access to a personal computer when they are out in the field or on patrol. But, while they are away from a PC they still need to know the real-time location of offenders, and be able to secure alerts on any offenders who have left the geographic boundaries specified for them as part of their release.
  • Electronic monitoring system smartphone or tablet mobile apps enable these officers to access this information anytime, anywhere, allowing them to monitor offenders even if they are away from their desks, and respond fast to any alerts.

6)      Is the system’s user interface easy to use?

  • With corrections department officials trying to expand or roll-out offender monitoring programs quickly in the wake of COVID-19, it is particularly important for electronic monitoring systems to come with an intuitive interface that officers and other staff can quickly and easily set up, use, and customize to meet their unique requirements.
  • For example, officials should look for electronic monitoring system user interfaces where the most frequently performed actions can be reached in less than two clicks from any place in the application.

7)      Does the system provide a variety geofencing options?

  • The ability to create a wide variety of geofence inclusion zones (locations the offender needs to stay within) and geofence exclusion zones (locations the offender needs to avoid) make it much easier for corrections department officials to implement more effective offender monitoring programs.
  • For example, they can set inclusion zones that vary by the time of day, allowing the offender to be home, go to work, and go to their probation office without triggering an alert.
  • In addition, corrections department officials can set up exclusion zones to ensure they are alerted if the offender approaches a victim’s home or workplace, or a school or playground.
  • Electronic monitoring systems should also offer the ability to set up “buffer zones” around the forbidden locations, providing officers with more time to respond to a zone violation by pre-emptively contacting or intercepting the offender or victim.

8)      Does the system use multiple location technologies?

  • Reliable and accurate tracking is essential for an offender monitoring program – and to ensure this, an ankle bracelet tracking device should include multiple location technologies – GPS, cellular, and short range (RF/beacon) – to ensure fail-safe tracking. While GPS is a “must-have” for tracking, with greater location precision than cellular technologies, multiple location technologies enable officers to track an offender’s whereabouts even if GPS or another location technology is not available in a given area.
  • Multiple location technologies also help extend the battery life of the ankle bracelet because it can use the strongest available signal at any given time, allowing it to conserve power.

9)      What is the system’s false-alert rate? 

  • Alerts notifying officers if an offender has left their geofence or otherwise violated the conditions of their release are essential for any offender monitoring program. But false positive alerts waste officer and other staff resources, and run the risk that “real” alerts in the future will be ignored. Corrections department officials should look for systems with low false-alert rates to avoid overwhelming their staff and wasting resources.

10)   Does the system provide aging alert notifications? 

  • When an electronic monitoring system does deliver an alert, it needs to be resolved by an officer or another member of the corrections department. Yet, sometimes alerts are not attended to or persist for various reasons.
  • Electronic monitoring systems with aging alert notifications highlight if an alert has not been resolved, ensuring that further action is taken, and no alert fails through the cracks. For example, if a corrections department receives an alert that an offender’s ankle bracelet is running out of power, and contacts that offender, but does not receive a response from them in a given time frame, an aging alert is sent out to follow-up with the offender about the battery.

Omnilink: The World’s Leading Offender Monitoring Solution

There are few offender monitoring systems on the market today that address all the questions above better than Omnilink™, Sierra Wireless’ electronic monitoring solution. Consisting of the OM500™ ankle bracelet, the FocalPoint™ monitoring app, and using wireless connectivity provided by Verizon though the Sierra Wireless network, the offender monitoring solution provides two-way communications to track and alert offenders 24/7. Omnilink’s FocalPoint app also uses the GPS built into an officer’s smartphone to help navigate them quickly to an offender’s location. In addition, the OM500 ankle bracelet device helps minimizes false positives thanks to its patented no-cut strap design, long battery life, and multiple location technologies.

Omnilink addresses many of the unique challenges corrections department officials face as they try to quickly expand or launch offender monitoring programs in the wake of COVID-19. As a managed service, Omnilink can be paid for as an operating expense, rather than a capital expense. This managed service model reduces the need for a larger up-front investment, while delivering everything the corrections department needs – ankle bracelet devices, software, and wireless connectivity – in a single, turn-key solution. Moreover, as a managed service, officials can quickly scale up or down the number of offenders they monitor with the system as needed.

In addition, there is no need to wait weeks or even months for the delivery of Omnilink’s OM500 ankle bracelets – Sierra Wireless currently has inventory in stock and continues to manufacture the devices at a high rate.

Omnilink has received high marks from the corrections community. For example, regarding its two-way communications capabilities, Lieutenant Lebraun Evans of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina, who manages the department’s offender monitoring program, says “It saves us a lot of time and manpower compared to sending someone out when we can’t get a hold of someone. We know that we can reach you because the device that’s communicating with you is attached to you.”

Evan’s also describes the FocalPoint software as “extremely user-friendly,” and says the system is a valuable tool for fighting crime, because “It’s a strong deterrent when you know that if you commit a crime, we’re going to know that you were there.”

Read our white paper, Electronic Monitoring for Pretrial Offenders, view our Omnilink video, download our Omnilink case study and Start with Sierra to learn more on how the Omnilink offender monitoring solution can help your department lower COVID-19 inmate infection rates by reducing jail overcrowding, all while improving officer efficiency, lowering incarceration costs, and increasing public safety in your community.