After more than a year's hiatus, local judges soon will be able to order the electronic monitoring of criminal defendants who are released on bail.
A circuit judge placed a moratorium on the practice in September 2012 after discovering that there had been numerous gaps and slipups that allowed accused criminals on bail to wander about, violating the terms of their release. Bail bondsmen had been in charge of the monitoring at the time.
Soon the responsibility will belong to the Charleston County Sheriff's Office, which will monitor and enforce electronic monitoring.
Jail staff members, who will undergo special training, will use software connected to each GPS monitoring system to make sure the defendants are abiding by the rules imposed upon them.
The sheriff's deputies will be responsible for picking up defendants who violate their conditions, according to Maj. Eric Watson.
Magistrate Judge Linda Lombard, who sets bail, said magistrate judges had lost confidence in the electronic monitoring shortly before the moratorium was enacted. "It was not being honest with the victim," she said. "In the past, there was a false sense of security."
Charleston area authorities had complained about the system for the past decade, and the 2012 moratorium marked the second time in six years they had suspended placements due to concerns that offenders released from jail to monitoring weren't being properly supervised.
A 2006 moratorium was imposed after a man awaiting trial in a Folly Beach rape case was accused of sexually assaulting another woman while wearing a monitoring device. The courts eventually went back to the system, but problems persisted.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson's office began reviewing the monitoring program in 2012 after coming across some disturbing breaches, including one case in which a bail bondsman failed to report a reputed drug dealer who traveled the region nightly while supposedly on house arrest.
In another case, records showed murder defendant Robert Fields of West Ashley was off the monitoring grid for 12 days because his monitoring unit's battery died and no one alerted authorities, prosecutors said.
In 2005, Kevin Chase was convicted of criminal domestic violence after authorities said he attacked his estranged wife, who suffered internal injuries and lost nearly half her blood. He was out on bail and had an electronic monitor.
Chief Administrative Circuit Judge Roger Young said he is confident in the ability of the Sheriff's Office to make the system work.
"The electronic monitoring program will be managed more effectively by law enforcement once it is implemented," Watson said.
Running the program will not cost the sheriff's office any money, according to Watson.
At this time, sheriff's officials don't foresee having to hire additional staff. "However, this may change as the program grows and more offenders are placed on electronic monitoring," Watson said.
The monitors will be provided by a vendor, which has not been finalized yet, and the costs of the upkeep will be paid by the defendant directly to the company.
"I feel like this takes the financial conflict of interest completely out of the equation," Young said.
The move is instilling confidence back in the system, according to some area judges.
Lombard said she will reconsider placing defendants on electronic monitoring once it's in the sheriff's office's control, and she's pleased the move is being made.
Sheriff's officials hope to have the program up and running by next month.
Charleston County will be in control of the entire program, according to sheriff's officials.
A vendor's software will be installed in computers at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center, which will serve as the command site for the program. Zones will be set up for each defendant, defining boundaries based on the conditions set by a judge - where they are allowed to be and when.
If defendants violate their conditions by stepping outside their zones, the software creates an alert, according to sheriff's officials.
Deputies would then detain the defendant.
Defense attorney Andy Savage said he's not comfortable with deputies having that specific authority, and said there should be due process in the matter.
"It's not their bond, it's the court's bond," Savage said.
Savage said a judge should decide whether defendants are detained.
"There are battery failures and other issues that can happen that have nothing to do with conduct," Savage said.
After being arrested for a violation, the defendant would go before a judge, authorities said.
Young said defendants would not sit in jail long, because of the frequency of bond hearings in criminal court in Charleston.
"We're holding bond-revocation hearings almost every week. At a maximum you're probably talking about 10 days; as a practical matter, three-to-four days. I don't see that being a huge problem," Young said.
The sheriff's office's authority to detain violators would come from the bail conditions those individuals would have to agree to in order to be placed on electronic monitoring.
"You have to give up some rights to get this special privilege. Not everyone gets to be on electronic monitoring," Young said.
Bail bondsman Jimmy Robinson is also on board with the move.
"I just hope it works out," Robinson said. Only a few of the approximately dozen Lowcountry bondsmen handled electronic monitoring.
Robinson said he believes the system will work better with the sheriff's office at the helm, but believes deputies will encounter the same problems bond companies used to deal with.
"The monitors are not going to stop them from committing crimes," he said. "But it will place them at the scene of the crime."
Reach Natalie Caula Hauff at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.
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