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Houston EM Use Skyrockets During Pandemic

Harris County, Texas appears to now be the largest pretrial electronic monitoring program in the country. In 2019, this jurisdiction, which includes Houston, had just 27 people on pretrial monitors. Today the number has surpassed 4,000, exceeding Cook County, Illinois by more than a thousand. Even more shockingly the jail population, which declined in the early days of the pandemic, has now risen back to pre-COVID levels. In other words, the total combined number of people being incarcerated in the jail and in their homes is escalating.

Only 27 in Jan. 2019

The number of defendants on electronic monitoring in Harris County has surged from double-digits just a couple of years ago, to just over 4,000 as of this week, according to Harris County Pretrial Services.

“In the last two years, it’s been frequent,” said Garza with the Harris County Bail Bondsman Association. He also described the increased reliance on monitors as, “bail reform in a nutshell.”

In January 2019, the average daily monitor count in Harris County was 27 individuals, but as of Wednesday, the number was 4,016. Critics are attributing the rise to judges.

“People are trying to use the ankle monitors so that they aren’t politically on the hook if someone commits a crime while they are awaiting their day in court,” said Albert Fox Cahn, Director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project based in New York City.

Doug Griffith, President of the Houston Police Officers’ Union agrees.

“I believe it’s all just covering their backside,” said Griffith.

Garza said the devices are not the answer.

“Ankle monitors are not a fix-all,” he said.

Garza also adds that proper oversight has been absent in multiple murder cases where the suspect is a violent defendant required to be on an electronic monitor.

KPRC 2 Investigates examined two recent cases where the lack of monitor use was a factor. The first case involves Deon Ledet who killed HPD Senior Officer Bill Jeffrey months after never reporting for one.

The second focused on Jesus Gallegos who was listed by Crime Stoppers in a recent KPRC 2 Investigates report as the worst example of bond failure in Harris County.

Gallegos had a history of tampering with his monitor in the days before allegedly killing his girlfriend in November of 2020. County records also show he failed to charge his monitor numerous times.

Griffith, who attributes rising numbers of monitors on judges not implementing strict and costly bonds, questions defendants with a history of crime who are being provided with an electronic monitor.

” If you’ve got a guy that has committed three or four aggravated robberies and you’re just going to give him an ankle monitor and tell him to keep yourself at home, that is not going to work,” said Griffith.

For Garza, electronic monitors create a “false sense of security,” but adds that monitors can be successful under the right circumstances.

“It works when you have the support group,” said Garza.

Joe Russo with the American Probation and Parole Association believes success comes down to oversight.

“There has to be a very strict protocol and responses so that when someone does do something wrong on GPS that there is a quick certain response and they are held accountable,” Russo said.

Harris County Pretrial would not do an interview for this report, but an official said they have added staff recently and currently have 21 pretrial officers who are “regularly or temporarily assigned to the EM Unit.”

As for the cost of the device? According to Harris County Pretrial, the daily rate for a device is $3.71, which translates to an average of $113, with Harris County picking up the tab for the vast majority of the over 4,000 people who are currently being monitored.

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