SENT HOME, BUT HARDLY FREE
The Idaho woman had been a teacher for 30 years. Her husband had died just months before. Then she got word there was another family tragedy, in Washingtons Tri-Cities.
For reasons that included depression, sadness and maybe a bit of anger, the woman headed back to Idaho but stopped at some point along the way and consumed alcohol.
A police officer in La Grande stopped her, and she found herself charged with driving while under the influence of intoxicants.
Convicted, the woman faced a career-ending jail sentence at perhaps one of the lowest moments of her life.
House arrest salvaged the situation.
She, and her home towns law enforcement agency, made arrangements with the Union County Sheriffs Department that she would serve her sentence monitored by an electronic ankle-bracelet program that allowed her to go to work during certain hours of certain days, but otherwise alerted a monitoring system if she wasnt where she was allowed to be.
The convicted woman paid in advance each month to cover the cost of the monitoring equipment and a fee for being on house arrest.
Its the only time shed been in trouble, explains Corrections Deputy Bobby Crader of the Union County Sheriffs Department, and probably definitely the last time.
Crader is the deputy who has, since August, been the person responsible for those serving house arrest sentences.
While the house arrest program in Union County has a very uncertain future in light of forthcoming changes in the budget for the jail, its first months have drawn praise.
I was pretty ecstatic about it when it came up as an option, says Christopher Gray, who served 45 days on house arrest in March and April for burglary, unlawful entry of a motor vehicle and criminal mischief.
Gray was sentenced just two days after his son was born. The chance to be with his son was awesome, Gray says. Knowing that his whereabouts are under 24-hour per day monitoring wasnt a huge problem with Gray, who invited Crader freely into his home during one of Craders unannounced visits.
The house arrest program may look easy, Crader said, but many of those convicted of crimes find it limiting and expensive and hard to ignore.
Crader calls the winter months a testing of the waters for the program. The local program was based on Umatilla County guidelines, among the best house arrest models in the state. Umatilla County has up to 40 people serving a house arrest sentence at any given time.
At present, Union County has only nine monitoring systems.
We knew this (the monitoring systems) was kind of a big venture, but we had used alternative (prisoner) housing on a small scale in the past, Crader said.
Being placed on house arrest after being sentenced doesnt just happen. There are strict criteria of who, having done what, qualifies. Generally, the program accepts first-time offenders who have been given minimal jail time for crimes that dont involve drugs.
While the drug exclusion isnt hard and fast, Crader notes that drug offenders are extremely hard to supervise.
We only work with very low-risk people, he added. A short list might include first-time drunk drivers, those with little past history of breaking laws, or those convicted of property crimes.
And then theres the cost. While inmates of the county jail are billed for the days in jail, collection comes after they are released. Those on house arrest pay up front. There is a set-up charge of $25, then a daily charge of $10, due the first of each month for the month ahead.
Key to the house arrest program are the electronics.
First, there is a 9- by 9- by 2-inch black box with a carrying case. The box is the computer monitoring system that connects via a phone line to the 24-hour monitoring company. The box reads the signals from an ankle bracelet the convicted person wears. The ankle bracelet is attached at the sheriffs office and any attempt to remove it sends a signal to the jail.
Once connected by the prisoner to a phone line in at home, the box starts its constant monitoring.
If they go too far from the box and that can be a matter of just feet the box goes off automatically.
When the monitoring company gets a signal from the in-home box, the sheriffs office receives a fax that the monitoring agreement has been violated.
The prisoner can usually move around his or her home and perhaps, but not always, to a porch, Crader said.
If the prisoner works, as in the teachers case, the monitor is set to turn off to allow the prisoner time to get to and from work. In some cases, the monitor is set to allow the person to attend court-ordered meetings or other specific gatherings. Employers of those on house arrest must agree to having the employee work while under supervision and stay in contact with Crader about work performance and attendance.
The monitors alert when they are disconnected from the phone lines, tampered with, or when the power goes off.
The monitoring unit also stores information, so keeping a record of a prisoners movements is automatic.
The house arrest program started using funds from Community Corrections to buy the equipment. Community Corrections officers oversee probationers and parolees.
Crader has supervised about 40 house arrest prisoners since the program started. That means he can check in with them at any time, drive by their homes, or have them come in for a visit, as needed.
Among those on house arrest, only three have been returned to the jail to serve their sentences. One person was late returning from a pass, one was getting behind in payments, and one tested positive on a routine urinalysis for controlled substances.
Talking to Gray in his La Grande home, Crader explained that Gray wasnt at first considered for the program. In fact, the judge recommended that he not be put on house arrest.
But then a housing crunch developed at the jail, and corrections were concerned that Gray might be matrixed out of jail, in favor of keeping prisoners convicted of more serious offenses in jail.
We approached him, Crader said. We felt better with him out and supervised, than matrixed out.
Gray is quick with reasons for being in favor of house arrest. In jail, he said, he was penned up, couldnt smoke, had to spend his days with lots of guys with attitudes, and, to make matters worse, the jail had received a lot of carrots so the cooks were serving carrots for every meal, Gray moaned.
I do a lot of babysitting, Gray says of his stay on house arrest. But it beats the heck out of sitting up there (in jail).
Crader sees the program from both sides. He sees it saving the county money while covering its own costs, but theres the prisoners side of it, too.
Until youve been to jail, you dont realize all the little things you lose.
The program tends to work better for those just a little older, Crader said. Gray, for example, was serving his time shortly before turning 29.
Ive spent my crazy days, he said.
Prisoners, Crader explains, have to be ready to change or to play the game of house arrest. At about age 30, the lights are going on.
Gray agrees, saying he acknowledges that with small children and in a committed relationship now, he is ready for a change.
Story and photo
by T.L. Petersen of The Observer