When La Crosse County officials were presented with an atypical alternative to imprisonment known as day reporting, the response was virtually unanimous.
My initial thought was, are you kidding me, said La Crosse County Circuit Court Judge Dale T. Pasell. I think that was an instinctive reaction by most people when the idea was first discussed.
The concept is rooted in electronic monitoring techniques and scheduled appointments for both accused and convicted people rather than work-release and Huber. Day reporting also allows people to potentially avoid incarceration all together, provided they adhere to strict guidelines.
Initially perceived as a radical venture, the plan was put into effect in January 2006. More than one year later, it has thrived and officials in La Crosse County have more or less accepted and adapted to the changes.
Proposed as another option to imprisonment, day reporting is one element of electronic monitoring, a rehabilitative measure which has gained popularity in recent years.
Day reporting is really just one aspect of electronic monitoring, but the entire process is much more effective than it was in the past, said Pasell. The technology today allows us to be so much more efficient.
Though the system seemingly allows offenders to walk the sidewalks like any other citizen, the majority are not free. Bracelets with GPS capabilities are affixed to qualified offenders and can monitor daily activity down to the minute.
La Crosse County Sheriff Steve Helgeson noted that most squad cars are equipped with laptop computers, which allow officers to link into offender files.
We can respond with the click of a button and send out a case worker if necessary, said Helgeson. Thats something we couldnt do in the past.
Those sentenced to day reporting are required to attend sessions at the justice sanctions center. The frequency is determined by the court, which, according to Pasell, has ranged from twice a day to once a week.
Since the most common cases involve drugs and alcohol, offenders are also subject to regular testing. For severe alcohol-related cases, the county purchased 10 SCRAM bracelets, which can test an offender sitting on their couch every 20 minutes, 24 hours a day.
Failure to comply with any of the regulations involved with electronic monitoring results in immediate jail time. Because of the penalties, Pasell believes the process puts the responsibility on the shoulders of the offenders, which has not always been the case.
Even those on Huber could be out 12 hours a day and we really had little idea of where to find these people, said Pasell. It could be seven days later and wed find out someone wasnt even working anymore.
While the ability to regulate offender activity has improved, the decision as to when to impose electronic monitoring sentences has become more difficult.
It has really forced judges to more carefully sentence an individual case, said Pasell, who stated that the process only applies to those who would have previously been considered for work-release or Huber.
In some cases, we feel the offender is best served by monitoring, but in others there is need for jail time.
In some cases, it can be both. The flexibility has allowed judges to divide sentences and even implement day reporting in probationary and bond sentencing.
A person could be sentenced to 30 days in jail; then upon release, be subject to extended day reporting as part of probation, said Pasell.
Judges also have the option of substituting aspects of day reporting in setting bond. In a drug offense, a judge could require the accused to attend testing in lieu of a monetary bond.
In a lot of cases, people seem more comfortable with that type of arrangement and it gives us in the court an opportunity to address the severity of the situation before a person is freed on bond, said Passel.
According to Pasell, all five circuit court judges in La Crosse County have now had extensive experience with day reporting and advanced beyond their initial reservations.
The transition has been a smooth one for the most part, according to Judge Ramona A. Gonzalez and she praised the specialized rehabilitation the program provides.
I think its a greater tool than the warehousing of Huber or work-release, said Gonzalez. In my opinion, we were basically providing an expensive hotel service for offenders.
County officials were obviously optimistic the program would succeed as the work-release jail was closed at the end of 2005. With a capacity of 110, the facility is now vacant and officials are contemplating demolishing the structure.
Even law enforcement officials, who Helgeson said were wary of endorsing the project at its outset, appear receptive
to the results.
Our number one concern was the amount of inclusion police would have, said Helgeson, who stated that there have been no significant repeat violations by offenders in the program. Public safety is our priority and there were reservations that came with an idea like this.
An initiative to enhance police involvement was put into place on Jan. 1, 2007, which includes home visits by officers in coordination with the drug courts.
The effort is likely a step in strengthening the public perception of electronic monitoring and day reporting.
I think people really wrestle with what constitutes punishment, said Helgeson. One of the issues brought up is how do victims view it. Are they satisfied with the outcome if a person is still out on the streets?
Pasell noted that those afforded the opportunity of electronic monitoring would have likely been part of a work release anyway.
This isnt something that was put in place without a lot of thought and research, added Gonzalez. This was de-signed as a long-term project and so far, I think it has been pretty successful.