Review cites monitoring program problems

A report from the National Institute of Justice found, among other issues, that the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office’s ankle monitoring program is understaffed, has too much judicial oversight and that juvenile participants often ignore rules because sanctions are not often enforced.

In a prepared statement, Sheriff Marlin Gusman said the review, completed at his request, found the program, despite the more than half-dozen suggestions, performs well and noted that his office has already implemented some of the suggested changes.

“This report demonstrates that the city’s electronic monitoring program is on the right path,” he said.

The program has come under fire recently after cases in which youth who wore ankle monitors were arrested in violent gun crimes. In one of those crimes, the teen’s ankle bracelet did not properly function.

While members of the City Council’s criminal justice committee have said that they view the 2-year-old, $600,000 program as an important alternative to incarceration, they have concerns about its operations and have questioned whether it should continue to receive funding.

Attempts to contact Councilwoman Susan Guidry, chairwoman of the criminal justice committee, were unsuccessful Wednesday.

The 14-page report suggests seven key changes: an updated mission statement, adjustments to the acceptance process for juveniles, more autonomy, increased staffing, improved in-house oversight, use of available technology to help administer the program and a better relationship with the Police Department.

The NIJ found that minor participants learn quickly that there are not enough beds in the Youth Study Center, the city's juvenile jail, meaning sanctions are often difficult to impose. It suggested a graduated system that would begin with a "firmly worded letter of warning" from the Sheriff's Office or a judge and would work its way up to arrest and a meeting with police who would "within the limits of the law" detain the teen and ask him or her to comply with the program or face time at the juvenile jail.

The report also found that many youth who wear ankle monitors do not face criminal charges but are instead youth who regularly run away from home. Many of those participants cut off their monitors and run away again, making them criminal defendants because the program prohibits tampering with the devices.

The report said the OPSO "is asked to play the role of a surrogate parent" and suggested the office stop allowing runaway teens into the program.

The NIJ also found that judges have too much control over the program and its participants.

Not only must the program accept all referrals from the courts, the report said, the OPSO has little to do in the way of setting supervision conditions. While the sheriff's office should work with judges, the "level of involvement by the courts is not necessary," the report reads.

Though the NIJ team found that the three full-time OPSO deputies assigned to the program are "exceptionally dedicated and hardworking," there are too few people working too many hours for something that requires constant attention.

The report suggests adding two new full-time deputies and a supervisor to cover the night shift and weekends, since those hours are not staffed now except by an on-call deputy. "Considering the number of hours paid at an overtime rate, the fiscal rationale for not hiring more deputies comes into question," the report reads.

The report notes that "even the most dedicated staff will become quickly fatigued" with long hours on a regular basis, leading to increased mistakes, burnout and turnover.

Gusman has said he suspended one deputy for a day for failing to refresh computer software that showed a 14-year-old boy who wore an ankle monitor let his device die. That teen allegedly took part in a series of armed robberies and carjackings in Uptown in October. While Gusman has said there also were issues that prevented the device from communicating with the computer, it was also his deputy's fault for not looking more closely at his computer to verify the information he saw was current.

Though Gusman has not said if he believes the deputy was tired, the report notes that notification and alerts are not often cleared once they appear on a computer screen, leaving a messy, confusing batch of information. To that end, the report suggested simply setting the software to an auto-refresh mode so that deputies can essentially monitor activity in real time.

The report also suggests a tighter relationship with the NOPD that could result in shared information that could save hundreds of investigative hours in trying to figure out if a program participant was at the scene of a crime, for example.

The report also suggests that closer work between the NOPD and OPSO can result in analyses of data that can be used to identify criminal associations and help officers get a better understanding of criminal networks in their coverage areas. But, the report notes, a second NOPD officer should replace one who was recently reassigned from the program.

While the NIJ report noted that Gusman has already made some changes, such as new staff and updated procedures, a follow-up review is needed after six months to ensure the changes have resulted in a more effective operation.