GPS Eyed As Jail Alternative
Harrisonburg Forum Held To Discuss Options
Posted: November 20, 2012
HARRISONBURG — For the last week, Harrisonburg resident Earl Martin voluntarily traveled around town with a GPS device locked to his ankle.
The local carpenter wanted to demonstrate how jails can use the device to release and closely monitor inmates accused of nonviolent crimes while they are awaiting trial.
Martin, speaking at a forum on the subject at the main branch of Massanutten Regional Library in downtown Harrisonburg on Monday afternoon, said he saw firsthand how a computer tracked his exact whereabouts 24 hours a day.
“God always knows where I’m at,” chuckled Martin, jokingly comparing the system to a divine being.
The forum included three panelists: the Rev. Mike Donovan, founder of Nexus Programs; Brian Shipwash, clerk of the superior court in Davidson County, N.C.; and William Wiseband, a bail bondsman in Fredericksburg.
Harvey Yoder, a Mennonite pastor who helped organize the forum, said he hopes GPS monitoring can one day reduce the number of inmates housed at Rockingham County Jail, located in downtown Harrisonburg on the west side of South Liberty Street at the corner of Market Street.
“It’s one narrow piece that can help with overcrowding and give people a way to work toward paying their court costs and fines,” Yoder said.
The three-story jail, which opened in 1994, is designed to handle 208 inmates but has routinely housed 300 or more in recent years. In March, the facility hit a record when 389 inmates were at the jail at one time.
The jail serves the city, county and towns of Bridgewater, Elkton, Broadway, Dayton, Grottoes, Mount Crawford and Timberville.
Overcrowding at the jail has been the subject of discussion among Rockingham officials for several years and at least one expansion study, which concluded in December 2007 that such a project would cost about $46 million.
But expanding the existing facility may prove difficult because of its location and, complicating the matter further, a moratorium is in place in Virginia on funding for new jail construction. Until that’s lifted, localities must gain an exemption from the governor’s office to get access to state cash.
Shipwash, a national expert on pretrial release policies, said he’s seen GPS monitoring and other pretrial policies work in North Carolina. He said Davidson County’s jail had 379 inmates in 2007, and officials were preparing to build a new $50 million jail to ease overcrowding there.
But county leaders there got together to see what inmates could be released through monitoring and other programs. As a result, Shipwash said, the jail’s inmate population now stands at 243.
“We were able to divert the cost of the jail and built a new middle school, instead,” he said.
Donovan, an associate pastor of the River Church who spent time in jail on felony fraud convictions, founded Nexus Programs. The faith-based organization provides GPS tracking for defendants awaiting trial.
Through Donovan’s program, nonviolent defendants are responsible for its costs, about $10 a day.
Still, Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson said many questions must be answered before moving forward on such a program, including who would be eligible to be released, what program would be used and how much it would cost.
“It’s something worth taking a look at,” Hutcheson said.
Contact Pete DeLea at 574-6278 or email@example.com