Maine will hear important debate Friday about a bill that would allow people seeking a protection from abuse order to request that the alleged offender wear an electronic monitoring device. While LD 842, sponsored by House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, is well-intentioned and addresses a significant issue, it should be revised before the state legislative Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety gives its approval.
Specifically, the legislation should follow the recommendations set out in a recent report completed by advocates, police, district attorney and attorney general representatives, the Maine Department of Corrections, the Maine Department of Public Safety, the Maine Office of Information Technology and the Maine Sheriff’s Association. The report recommends that monitoring be used in certain cases as part of pretrial bail conditions or post-conviction conditions of release, placing it as a tool within the criminal, not civil, system.
Last February, Gov. Paul LePage ordered the creation of the group to study the best ways of using technology to reduce the risk of domestic violence. Electronic monitoring devices are already used in Maine in certain circumstances. The task force, though, analyzed how those devices can be used effectively to reduce repeat offenses by those charged with or convicted of crimes involving domestic violence, sexual abuse and stalking.
The review confirmed that monitoring programs positively affect victim safety, reduce recidivism and improve the likelihood defendants will comply with conditions of release. It found that both high- and low-risk defendants should not be considered as candidates for monitoring and that the devices are most effective as part of a larger community response. It recommended that monitoring be used for certain defendants charged with crimes involving domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking; it should not be used in civil matters.
It also analyzed different types of monitoring. LD 842 would require active GPS monitoring, where a defendant must wear an electronic device at all times to relay his or her location to a monitoring site. This “run for your life” approach requires a containment circle to be set up at a victim’s home or place of work, so, if the offender comes within the circle, an alert triggers a response call for law enforcement and notifies the victim. If the victim is willing to wear a device, the alert can be set off when the offender comes within a certain distance of it.
The review found, though, that few victims are willing to wear the device, reducing the effectiveness of the alert option; there were technical glitches in both rural and urban areas; and police officers, especially in rural areas, found it difficult to respond quickly enough once the alert activated.
It’s also more expensive than another option, called “passive” monitoring. Instead of relaying a person’s location in real time, a system stores that information, so it may be reviewed later. Then, if offenders violate their conditions by contacting a victim, there is hard evidence of it happening.
The task force reached consensus that there should be one pilot project in a rural setting and another in an urban area to determine the effectiveness of the devices, how well law enforcement and pretrial services collaborate when violations are detected, the frequency of false alarms, victims’ willingness to participate and the cost of both passive and active GPS systems. LD 842 does call for a pilot study, but it would have the Maine Department of Public Safety carry it out, instead of the Department of Corrections, as the study recommends.
Luckily, Fredette is willing to amend the bill. “I’m certainly open to really producing, ultimately, a product that’s going to improve the health and safety of, particularly, women and children in the state,” he said.
The committee has a resource at its fingertips — the task force report — and should craft a bill that reflects its recommendations. Electronic monitoring can increase victim safety and improve offender accountability, but implementing a new system will take time, effort and money. To be effective, it should follow the research.