Pretrial program saves money; ankle monitor system saves cost of housing nonviolent defendants awaiting trial

OKEECHOBEE — The use of an ankle monitoring system as part of a pretrial program has saved Okeechobee County almost enough money in the first six months to pay for the annual cost of the service.

Since August, the pretrial program has saved the county $70,020 in inmate housing cost — based on an average of $60 per day to keep an inmate in the county jail.

According to Major Noel Stephen, of the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO), the savings is probably higher since the sheriff’s office estimates the cost of housing an inmate at $70 per day.

That per-day cost also does not include the savings on medical care.

The program costs the county $80,000 a year.

“We’re saving money every day with this,” said Maj. Stephen.

He said the taxpayers are saved the cost of housing and feeding these persons awaiting trial, and the defendants can keep working and supporting their families. He said it is especially helpful in cases of defendants who have medical issues, as they are responsible for their own medical bills while on the program. The county is responsible for the medical care of those housed in the county jail.

Maj. Stephen said the program has proven worthwhile, but it has not solved the overcrowding problem at the Okeechobee County Jail. He said the female jail population is extremely overcrowded, but these inmates have not been deemed eligible for the program. He said the judges decide who qualifies for the ankle monitor program.

The St. Lucie County Pretrial Program began operation in 2007. Last summer, Okeechobee County commissioners and Okeechobee County Sheriff Paul May agreed to enter into an agreement with St. Lucie County to offer the program in Okeechobee County.

At the discretion of the judge, instead of being sent to the county jail, a person awaiting trial may be sent home with an ankle monitor. Those on the program are restricted in their movements, but are allowed to work.

The court may also order other conditions such as “no contact” orders.

Random drug and alcohol screenings are enforced.

Exclusion zones can be set up around a victim’s residence, place of work, school, etc. to restrict contact, explained Mark Godwin, with the pretrial program. This is helpful in domestic violence cases, he continued.

“We keep track of where they are. If they violate it, all the bells go off,” he said.

The program gives the inmates a chance to show the judge they will abide by the rules, he said.

“Usually people in pre-trial are trying to impress the judge,” he said.
Since August, 26 Okeechobee County defendants — including six females — have been placed in the program by the judges. There are currently 10 Okeechobee County defendants in the program — two, of which, are female.

Since August, two Okeechobee County defendants have removed their ankle monitors and both were quickly apprehended.

One of those cases involved a confused an 89-year-old man who is suffering from dementia. He hooked the monitor to its charger, but when he couldn’t remember how to unhook the charger, he simply cut the monitor’s band. The man was not trying to escape and did not leave his home.

Removing the monitor results in incarceration in the county jail until trial.

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