LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- In past years, employees at Metro Corrections monitoring inmates on home incarceration awaiting trial at times had little more than the criminal defendant's word that he or she was where they were supposed to be because of the limited monitoring technology available.

"From the point where they were at work 'til coming home, we didn't know where they were," said Metro Corrections Major William Ashby, talking about when home incarceration participants would leave their home for not only work but to look for a job, go to medical appointments or whatever other court ordered releases they were allowed. "Basically ten hours of that day, we have no idea of their whereabouts."

But in the last few months, the old monitoring units, which tracked inmates mostly through landlines and cell phones, have begun being replaced with global positioning system technology that can track a defendant's location at all times, within a few feet – even telling jail officials whether the inmate is speeding or is too close to a person they were ordered to keep away from.

"They are actually tracked in real time to make sure they are where they are supposed to be," said Metro Corrections Director Mark Bolton.

The new technology is saving money, prompting judges to release more inmates and easing the constant problem of jail overcrowding, as well as providing a higher level of safety and accountability to the home incarceration program, court and jail officials say.

Jefferson County joins other counties, such as Kenton, Fayette and Warren, in switching to GPS monitoring, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

Bolton said the jail has purchased more than 300 GPS ankle bracelets in the last several months, using them for the most dangerous offenders given home incarceration, such as those accused in domestic violence cases.

Now Metro Corrections can set up "exclusion zones" around a victim's home or someplace else an inmate is not supposed to be and jail officials will get an alert if the defendant gets within a certain distance of the zone – prompting officials to call the inmate and/or send police.

Soon, Bolton said, officials will have the technology to give verbal commands through the GPS system, warning an inmate if they get too close to an exclusion zone. And the ultimate goal, he said, is for domestic violence victims to also get devices that would tell them when the alleged abuser got too close.

Marcia Roth, director of the Mary Byron Project in Louisville, which works to end domestic violence, said "any time any criminal justice agency takes an extra step to help a victim of domestic violence achieve safety is so positive."

But she noted that officials must be notified of the violation quickly, and act quickly, for the protective measure to be effective.

"I'm hopeful that their follow through if a warning goes off is immediate enough to provide the safety a victim needs," she said.

Jail officials say they are notified immediately when someone enters an exclusion zone.  One staffer is solely devoted to monitoring these alerts.

But, as with the old system, a defendant could still cut off the GPS ankle monitor.  Jail officials say this has happened a few times. But at least now, officials can usually track down the monitor.

For example, John Terry was charged last week with escape and theft after he walked out of the HIP office downtown and ditched the monitor, according to a police report. Terry, who was awaiting trial on drug charges fled. The monitor, according to the report, was recovered.

"It's not an exact science," Bolton said, but it saves money, allows defendants to keep their jobs, go to school and prepare to go back into society as smoothly as possible.

The current goal, Bolton said, is to add another 100 to 150 GPS monitors to get the rest of the medium-risk inmates given home incarceration onto the new device.

The defendant wearing the GPS monitor, which uses a fiber optic band, is required to keep it charged with a charger provided to them.  If the battery dies, or if the wearer removes the device, that would be a violation and could send the wearer to jail. It shows the location of the monitor as well as where it has been over a certain time period.

It is still up to a judge to order a defendant on home incarceration. Metro Corrections then does a risk assessment of inmates to determine whether to use one of the GPS monitors based on the nature of the allegations, the past criminal history and likelihood of reoffending, among other things.

All of the high-risk inmates and most of the medium-risk inmates on home incarceration are on GPS monitors right now. The program costs the jail $3.65 per monitor per day and inmates are charged a $5 fee.  It cost about $68 a day to house an inmate at Metro Corrections.

And the number of defendants on home incarceration has been steadily rising – at an all-time high of 695 this past week compared to about 450 three years ago – as judges get more comfortable allowing inmates into the program.  That number has jumped by more than 50 inmates in just the last few months.

"This is a more secure home incarceration than the other equipment," Jefferson District Court Judge Sean Delahanty said. "It gives us more confidence."

In August, Metro Corrections reopened a 60-year-old jail above the Louisville Metro Police Department headquarters to 72 inmates to ease overcrowding at its other facilities, as jail population topped 2,050 inmates for three straight days, reaching more than 2,070.

The 1950s-era jail lacks fire safety systems and has failed to meet state certification requirements for decades, and Bolton acknowledged it was not a "safe solution."

It was closed that same month when jail population fell below 2,050 inmates for three straight days.

Inmate capacity at Metro Corrections is 1,793, including 370 beds in the Hall of Justice at Sixth and Jefferson streets and 440 beds at the Community Corrections Center, a minimum-security facility on East Chestnut Street. Officials have been able to stretch the 1,793 capacity by having inmates sleep on mattresses on the floor.

The current jail population is under 2,000 inmates.

"With the jail crowding issue, HIP is the easiest relief valve so if we can get more inmates into the program, that's fabulous," Delahanty said. But, he cautioned, there are concerns.

Does Metro Corrections have enough staff to properly monitor the growing number of inmates on home incarceration?

Bolton said corrections is just about "tapped out in terms of staffing" and if the program is to expand more, he will need additional money to support it. (Thus far, Metro Corrections has spent about $500,000 on the project.)

Bolton said he has had discussions with Mayor Greg Fischer's office about additional funding.

Chris Poynter, a spokesperson for the mayor, said there will be no new money available for the program this fiscal year but it would be a consideration next year.

He said the mayor's office got to see a demonstration of the new technology a few weeks ago, including seeing exactly where an inmate was and where all he had been the previous day.

"It really blew us away," he said.

WDRB reporter Emily Mieure put the GPS system to the test; see how it fared by clicking on the video above.

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