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The Ankle Monitor Strategy 

Charles Maldonado wears an ankle monitor to learn how the Orleans Parish Sheriff's office tracks offenders

click to enlarge Ankle monitors must be charged for two hours a day. The devices show the OPSO where you are and where you've been.
  • Ankle monitors must be charged for two hours a day. The devices show the OPSO where you are and where you've been.

The New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) arrested two juveniles — ages 13 and 15 — for the May 29 killing of 58-year-old Rafael Quintanilla in front of his Mid-City home. As of late last week, not much was known about the 13-year-old whom police identified as the shooter, which is typical in any case involving a juvenile.

  "The Children's Code is very stringent," says Christopher Bowman, spokesman for Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office. The Code is part of the state law that governs judicial procedure for juveniles. The law requires keeping juvenile records private, particularly when a child is younger than 14, says Bowman, who adds that he can't even confirm that the young suspect is still in custody.

  One thing that is known — because police released that information — is that May 29, the date of the killing, was also the boy's 13th birthday.

  Cops say the teenager was wearing an electronic ankle monitor at the time of the shooting. He had been wearing it since May 16, police say.

  That a young teenager — one who NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas described as having a lengthy criminal record with arrests for violence and gun violations — was allegedly able to commit a murder and cover such a large swath of the city trying to get away while wearing a tracking device naturally raises questions about the monitoring program.

  It is run by the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office (OPSO) under a 2010 cooperative endeavor agreement with the city. Previously, private contractor Total Sentencing Alternatives ran the program.

  The monitoring program isn't cheap, but it's less expensive than incarceration. Monitoring costs $14.75 a day for each juvenile state offender and $13.25 for each adult and municipal offender. Incarceration costs $22.39 a day per inmate — plus medical expenses. This year's city budget sets an $800,000 limit on the program's cost, up from $600,000 last year

  "Detention is the most expensive option ... so there's a huge cost to taxpayers when we are unnecessarily using detention," says Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. It can also be harmful, Kaplan says, particularly for juveniles charged or convicted of relatively minor crimes. "You're taking them out of school, you're taking them away from their family and putting them in a jail with other young people who are accused of more violent crimes. Unfortunately, the end result is there is a multiplier effect."

June 4, 11:52 a.m. Intake Processing Center, Orleans Parish Prison

  Lindsay Southwick of the Ehrhardt Group, which handles press relations for the OPSO, escorts me to the electronic monitoring office, where I meet Capt. William Devlin and deputy Earl Fox. Devlin and Fox will outfit me with an Omnilink ("Now You Know") ankle monitor, which I'll wear for the next day.

  OPSO leases the monitors from Omnilink. The sheriff's office tracks people wearing the monitors primarily via GPS technology. In certain situations when GPS signals might be blocked, deputies use cell signals, says OPSO Chief Deputy Jerry Ursin.

  "If you're in a downtown area, the CBD area, we could lose the signal," Ursin says. "You go into the [Superdome], you could lose the signal. So this device automatically switches to cellular triangulation. We never lose the signal."

  I'm not the first reporter in town to try this. WDSU reporter Camille Whitworth did it last November. In fact, it wasn't even my idea. Southwick suggested it when I called to request an interview.

  "We're going to treat you exactly as if you were a client," says Devlin.

  The term "client" feels appropriate at first, when they have me sign and initial a contract saying I won't violate the provisions of my fictitious court order — except I fully intend to violate as many provisions as possible to test the efficacy of the system.

  I'm not allowed to drink or take illegal drugs. I have a curfew. I'm supposed to be in my house — or inside a tight buffer area around my house — between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.

  Some — not all — court-ordered monitored releases require 24-hour house arrest. Mine does not. I do have geographic boundaries, including an "exclusion zone" where I'm not supposed to go.

  As of June 5, OPSO had 124 clients wearing ankle monitors — 125 including me.

  The monitor records my location in 60-second increments, but deputies, using Omnilink's software, only see me as a small orange dot on a computer screen in their office every 15 minutes — a power-saving measure, Ursin says — unless and until I enter an exclusion zone.

  My exclusion zone is the Gambit office in Mid-City. On Devlin's satellite image, the office appears in the center of a large red circle with a two-block radius. If I were a real "client," I would be contacted as soon as I approached the forbidden zone, even if I'm technically not in violation until I'm actually within it.

  "If we don't do that, you pull up to 123 Main St. with intention to harm, by the time we arrive the damage is done," Ursin says. "So we'll contact you and say, 'What are you doing there?'"

  Meanwhile, Ursin adds, OPSO deputies call out an imminent violation over the radio, accessible to NOPD and sheriff's deputies. One or both agencies then dispatch cars.

  "They'll get there before you get there," Ursin says.

  If they catch a monitored suspect inside an exclusion zone, the suspect is arrested and could serve whatever jail time he or she avoided as a result of the monitored release.

  My contract further states that I will not tamper with or intentionally break my device. That part of the deal isn't fictional. If I break the monitor, I'll have to pay a $2,500 replacement fee. Fortunately, it's waterproof.

  The monitor is bulky. It's approximately the size of a large AC adapter, which also is what it looks like. It's attached — a bit too loosely — with a rubber strap around my lower leg. Fiber optic wires run through the strap. Deputies will know immediately if I'm trying to cut or stretch it.

  It itches.

Ursin suggests a case could be made that the quick arrest of the 13-year-old after Quintanilla's May 29 murder demonstrates the program's efficacy. According to police, the suspect's alleged accomplice, arrested minutes after the shooting, told officers about the monitor.

  "The police got information that one of the perpetrators ... had an ankle monitor," Ursin says. "So we called up the address of the crime, and the time, to see if one of our clients was in that area."

  Using that data, police found the 13-year-old within hours of the killing.

  Police have ready access to the monitoring software, Ursin says. If, for example, there is a rash of burglaries, officers can check to see whether any known offenders wearing monitors were nearby at the time.

  "It's a crime analysis tool for us," Ursin says.

June 4, 12:09 p.m. – 2:14 p.m., car and office

  I'll see my movements tomorrow when I check back in with OPSO, so I decide to take my monitor for a ride — and to violate the terms of my fictitious contract.

  First, I eat lunch at the wrong place, a pizza restaurant near Orleans Parish Prison. At noon on a weekday, it's filled with cops, sheriff's deputies and lawyers — all of whom, I either observe or imagine, notice the telltale bulge near my ankle. Oddly, I'm embarrassed about it.

  I drive the monitor across the Industrial Canal and into St. Bernard Parish, turning back at the intersection of Judge Perez and Ventura drives.

  I get back to the Gambit office in Mid-City at 1:48 p.m. I'm in an "exclusion zone," and I have to charge the device for two hours per day or it will turn off. If its batteries get too low, I'll hear from someone at OPSO. If it turns off, I might see a cop.

  At 2:14 p.m., I get a phone call from Devlin, who not only knows I'm in the exclusion zone, but also that the device is being charged. Later, I'll take it on the Algiers ferry, drive to Jefferson Parish — another exclusion zone — and then turn back. I wonder if they'll be able to track me on the ferry, particularly with all the radio (and cell) traffic on the river.

The value of the monitoring program as an investigative tool doesn't resolve questions of whether it is appropriate to have previously violent arrestees — even juveniles — on an ankle monitor in the first place.

  How are these decisions made? Are certain types of offenders more likely to receive monitored release without specific geographic boundaries? Are some not eligible at all?

  Bowman, the DA's spokesman, says only that prosecutors will not make plea deals that include monitored release if they think it's unsafe to let a defendant out of jail. Beyond that, he says, it's entirely up to the judge. "The District Attorney's Office has no role in that decision," he says.

  Juvenile Court Judge Mark Doherty, who has told media outlets that he's barred by state law from discussing the case, set the monitoring terms for the 13-year-old accused of murdering Quintanilla. Doherty gave the suspect a curfew and required that he attend school but set no geographic restrictions.

  It's impossible to tell whether the restrictions imposed by Doherty were appropriate, because the suspect's name hasn't been released and under state law, his records are sealed. We don't even know what he was charged with in Doherty's court or, for that matter, whether Serpas' claim that he had a lengthy violent record is accurate.

  While she can't speak to the specifics of this case, Kaplan of the Juvenile Justice Project notes that juvenile courts collect data on how many monitored offenders fail to meet their obligations or reoffend. That data is applied to a constantly evolving risk assessment instrument, which helps judges determine who should be detained, monitored or released.

  "I think that, in general, the data is showing that the judges have been making appropriate decisions," she says.

June 5, 10:30 a.m., Intake Proces- sing Center

  "I see you took a little lap around your house last night," Fox says when I return to have the device, no longer itchy so much as painful, removed.

  At 10:05 p.m., right after my curfew, I walked two blocks from my house, turned back, then walked four blocks in the other direction, stopping for about 30 minutes at a bar — another violation. I hoped it would register. It did, as Fox shows me on a satellite image of my neighborhood.

  Then he adds, "How was the ferry ride?"

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