A GPS company hired by the county’s Probation Department to keep an eye on about 300 convicts left more than a dozen of them unsupervised days, sometimes weeks.
It seems many of the probationers using the devices had no idea they were not functioning properly. But when they checked in with their probation officers, officials found several of the devices had stopped sending signals of their location.
The GPS devices are supposed to send the company, Sentinel Offender Services, a signal every 60 seconds telling them where the probationers are. Instead, some of the devices didn’t send a signal for days. Some where found to have stopped sending coordinates for nearly a month.
But it wasn’t just GPS devices that failed.
In one instance, a convict required to take an alcohol-content breath test at his home failed it more than 80 times, but the company never told officials in the Probation Department.
Officials are already working to transition about 300 convicts to another company, but it has raised serious concerns with elected and law enforcement officials.
With a rising population in county jails, local officials across the state are relying more and more on GPS devices and private companies to keep an eye on probationers.
Published: Aug. 2, 2013 Updated: 9:44 p.m.
By SALVADOR HERNANDEZ
ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
More than a dozen convicts required to wear GPS units went unsupervised in Orange County for days and one person forbidden from drinking failed alcohol tests more than 80 times without authorities being notified, a memo obtained by the Orange County Register shows.
At least five convicted criminals using GPS ankle bracelets were not tracked for more than 20 days. Orange County Probation Department officials also found that the company providing GPS monitoring failed to take photos of participants in the program, a requirement under a contract that was terminated this week.
The faults posed “a serious threat to public safety,” the memo said, and officials with the Probation Department recommended the county end its contract with Irvine-based Sentinel Offender Services.
“These most recent incidents of default by Sentinel are unacceptable,” read a July 25 memo from the county’s Probation Department to the Board of Supervisors.
The problems discovered in the GPS monitoring program come as probation and law enforcement officials have come to rely more heavily on the electronic devices as alternatives to incarceration. As the responsibility for state inmates have been shifted to counties, local jail populations have swelled and local probation officers have been asked to take on cases that would have previously been assigned to state correction officials. Counties have been placing more convicts on GPS monitoring.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer referred to the findings as “alarming.”
“If we continue to use electronic monitoring, it needs to be foolproof,” Spitzer said in a prepared statement. “We want to monitor the probationer. But we also need to monitor the monitors.”
Some of the mistakes were noted in a memo sent June 13 by Chief Probation Officer Steven Sentman to the supervisors.
Sentinel officials responded to Sentman in a letter dated June 27 stating several people in the company were reassigned, performances were being reviewed and that some employees “have been disciplined, including up to termination.”
But additional reviews by the Probation Department show problems continued, and last week officials recommended sending Sentinel a 60-day notice of termination.
Most of the failures in the units appear to have been discovered by probation officials June 4, when deputy probation officers and supervisors reviewed the tracking data for 13 convicts wearing ankle devices, a June 13 memo said.
Officers found a number of the units had stopped providing coordinates for days, yet the company never notified officers.
In one case, the last location sent by the unit was May 7 – that’s 28 days without a signal even though the devices are supposed to transmit coordinates every 60 seconds.
In another incident, officials found one convict required to use a breath-alcohol testing device failed the test 81 times in a 35-day period, yet probation officials were never notified. After the error was discovered, the convict was arrested for violating the terms of his release.
Documents reviewed by the Register show Sentinel attributed most of the errors to mechanical failures, including water damage of internal computer boards, defective units and “sporadic and insufficient length of battery recharging.”
“Fortunately, these issues were not universal, and there were no absconded clients, but the extent of these reporting failures is greater than we have ever experienced,” a June 27 letter from the company said. “We are confident that these oversights will not occur again.”
But in their report to supervisors, probation officials said problems persisted.
“It was alarming,” Spitzer said in the statement. In a June board meeting, he suggested the board consider issuing a 60-day notice of termination. “These untracked individuals posed an immediate threat to public safety, and I could not just sit back and watch.”
GPS used more
Law enforcement officials across the state have increased their use of GPS monitoring since late 2011, when the state implemented a prison-reform program known as realignment.
In an effort to follow by a federal court ruling, state officials shifted the responsibility of housing and supervising thousands of convicts to counties. Law enforcement officials have since reported a significant increase in their county jail populations.
The program emphasized that counties look at alternatives to incarceration, including GPS monitoring, home confinement and work-release.
In Orange County, the Probation Department has operated a GPS program since 2008.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department began using GPS units in March to help manage its jail population, as well increasing the number of offenders in work-release programs. Sheriff’s Department officials do not contract with Sentinel.
Probation officials manage two electronic monitoring programs – one that is contracted to Sentinel Offender Services and another that is monitored by probation officials 24 hours a day, said Bryan Prieto, chief deputy probation officer.
The program managed by probation officials handles convicts and juveniles believed to be more likely to offend, he said. They include inmates with the most serious offenses and those with multiple probation violations.
The cases contracted to Sentinel Offender Services included convicts deemed eligible for GPS surveillance instead of serving their sentence behind bars, Prieto said. They generally involve those less likely to violate probation restrictions.
An internal audit of both programs by the county found, “significant concerns in the vendor side,” Prieto said.
Probation worked with the company to identify the issues and make sure corrective measures were taken, he said.
But documents reviewed by the Register show the Probation Department continued to have serious concerns about its contract with the company.
“The department has no confidence or assurance to Sentinel’s ability to provide accurate, reliable and consistent service,” the report stated.
In a report to supervisors, officials with the Probation Department said they have begun talks with another company to take over the contract. The notice to end the contract was delivered Thursday to Sentinel. Sentinel has worked with the county in some capacity since 1993, the company’s website said.
The company’s site says Sentinel has provided GPS service to agencies in Los Angeles County, the state of Massachusetts, Hillsborough County in Florida; Reno, Nev.; and Atlanta Municipal Court.
In May, the county renewed its contract with Sentinel for one additional year. Under the agreement, Sentinel charges participants a daily fee based on their incomes. Additional fees are charged for drug and alcohol monitoring. The county then receives 38 percent of the fees.
The agreement said the company was expected to collect $1,892,208 during the 2012-13 fiscal year, resulting in $719,039 for the county.
Four calls to Sentinel were not returned Friday.
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