House arrest


Published: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 10:50 p.m.

A recent investigation into the effectiveness of house arrest lead to a report that the system has some fairly serious flaws.

House arrest is effective only if the arrest sticks.

That's the message from a recent Orlando Sentinel investigation into the house-arrest process in Florida.

The Sentinel found that the state hasn't devoted adequate resources to monitoring the arrestees, and a disturbing number of them have been committing serious crimes while supposedly restricted to their homes.

The blame isn't limited to the state Department of Corrections. The Sentinel found that many judges were placing ineligible convicts - those convicted of violent crimes such as robbery and kidnapping - under house arrest without realizing that they have no authority to do so.

Judges blamed prosecutors for not advising them properly, and prosecutors blamed judges and the legislators who enacted the statutory limitations.

Gov. Jeb Bush, whose department strongly defends the program, says judges should put more offenders in prison rather than house arrest.

That's one quick fix, until you consider that the cost of incarceration is considerably more than the cost of house arrest, and that the state is already facing a potential multi-billion dollar deficit.

The most shocking statistics cited by the Sentinel were that 234 people have been murdered and 538 people have been sexually molested by house-arrest criminals since 1983. That's nothing less than appalling.

In fairness, it's often hard to predict that people convicted of nonviolent offenses may be disposed to commit violent crimes when given the opportunity.

But the supervision of those under the house-arrest program has been so lacking that the public hasn't received adequate protection against those who would prey upon law-abiding citizens.

More than 10,000 people are under house arrest in Florida. If all of them were to be incarcerated, the cost to the state would be prohibitive.

Putting a person in prison costs more than four times as much as house arrest, or "community control." But that's no excuse for the state cutting corners on its supervision.

House arrest isn't the same as probation. It is a severe restriction on movement that is meant to keep the convict out of the public mainstream.

In this case, the home substitutes for a prison cell, and failure to abide by the house arrest rules should be treated as harshly as escaping from prison.

Instead, the Sentinel found, corrections officers are giving some latitude to convicts who aren't at home when the officers visit.

It apparently takes two or more violations before most offenders are cited for a violation that will put them in jail.

Violations appear to be common.

The Sentinel said 60 percent of the offenders placed on house arrest fail to finish the program. Most end up in prison.

Fleeing also is a serious problem.

The newspaper reported that the state has lost track of some 5,000 offenders since the program began in 1983. Among them are 14 killers and 115 sex offenders.

One of the big problems is that the Legislature has failed to provide enough corrections officers to check up on the convicts properly.

The Legislature has said caseloads shouldn't exceed 25 per officer, but the department acknowledges it assigns as many as 39 cases to individuals.

The overall average for the state is approximately what the Legislature has prescribed.

Another problem is that the state doesn't have enough electronic monitors for high-risk convicts.

The monitors can be effective in tracing convicts who leave their homes without advance authorization, but they are costly.

Two key legislators, Sen. Howard Futch, R-Indialantic, and Rep. Gus Barreiro, R-Miami, told the Sentinel they were upset by the findings and would work to correct the problems in the 2003 legislative session, which begins in March. They chair the crime committees in the House and Senate.

It sounds as if they'll have plenty of work to do. Money is tighter than ever this year, and the Corrections Department isn't anywhere near the head of the line in asking for more.

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