A string of shocking failures to supervise people wearing electronic monitors has limited their use in Charleston County since late 2012, but now the courts and law enforcement are ready to give it another try.
This time will be different, officials say, because Charleston County sheriff's deputies and a private company with experience in other South Carolina counties will be monitoring defendants wearing the tracking devices while out on bail.
Electronic monitoring will be phased back in as a potential bond condition in Charleston County starting Tuesday.
Since late 2012, magistrates in the Ninth Judicial Circuit that covers Charleston and Berkeley counties have been unable to require electronic monitoring or use it in conjunction with a bond reduction. As Charleston County phases the monitoring back in, only magistrate Judge James Gosnell will have the authority to impose it, at a bond reconsideration hearing.
The moratorium remains in place in Berkeley County.
Under the Charleston County phase-in a defendant can't be put into monitoring at an initial bond hearing, held within 24 hours of arrest, but defendants unable to post bond could seek a hearing later in front of Gosnell, when monitoring could be ordered.
"Right now, I want to keep it so that one judge on the magistrate level is involved ... rather than 15 different judges deciding if it's appropriate or not appropriate," said Circuit Court Judge Roger Young Sr.
The Global Positioning System monitors are attached to a defendant's ankle, and report their exact location to law enforcement and private contractors every two minutes.
If a person strays from where they are supposed to be - typically home, work, or church - law enforcement should know immediately and respond quickly.
"If he's in an area he's not supposed to be in, I'll get an alarm," said Robert Harvey Jr., training instructor at the county jail, who demonstrated the system last week. "If he's supposed to be home by 6 p.m. and he's not home by 6 p.m., it will send me an alert."
Under the old system, bail bondsmen were in charge of electronic monitoring, and in several well-publicized incidents were accused of failing to notice or failing to notify authorities when their clients broke the rules. For example:
Brandon Bannister was awaiting trial for allegedly exposing himself, and while on electronic monitoring the 25-year-old broke into a young woman's home and sexually assaulted her in March 2012. The crime resulted in a 25-year prison sentence following Bannister's guilty plea, and in an ongoing civil suit, the woman is suing two bail bonding companies for allegedly failing to monitor Bannister.
"The system failed, or the people running the system failed, and as a result my client was sexually assaulted," said the woman's lawyer, Lionel Lofton.
That case echoed a 2006 incident that led to a previous, temporary halt to electronic monitoring in the Ninth Judicial Circuit. That year, a Folly Beach man awaiting trial on a rape charge was accused of assaulting another woman while wearing a monitoring device.
In 2012 Anthony Willis Jr., an 18-year-old murder suspect, was supposed to be confined to his house with electronic monitoring, but was apparently able to take the device off after the battery ran out, then he recharged it and left it in his home while allegedly committing two robberies with a stolen shotgun near Summerville.
Willis was arrested, but the failure in monitoring was only discovered, after Willis allegedly crashed the car he stole during a robbery outside a Summerville Pizza Hut. Months later, he was convicted on the murder charge and sentenced to life in prison.
Jim Robinson, owner of Robinson GPS Monitoring, said he's glad to see the Sheriff's Department taking over the monitoring in Charleston County - something his business has been doing since 1988.
"I'm glad to be out of it, to tell you the truth," he said.
Robinson, who also runs a bail bond business, said monitoring was a frustrating business, and there was no money in it. He's still in business for now, monitoring defendants in the tri-county area as well as Orangeburg and other counties. There are still Charleston County defendants with monitoring devices, as a result of pre-moratorium actions or decisions by Circuit Court judges, to whom the moratorium did not apply.
"The problem we had in the past was the reporting system - who you report to," Robinson said. "We would tell the bonding company, but if they wouldn't pick (a defendant) up there was nothing we could do."
Under the old system, even if authorities were aware of a violation, if the bail bondsman didn't pick up the defendant, it could take weeks for the Sheriff's Department to obtain a warrant.
Now, deputies will directly enforce violations, and a recent state law allows for expedited bond revocation hearings. Also, a new state law created a penalty of up to three years in jail for defendants who tamper with their monitoring devices.
Defendants will pay about $270 monthly to Georgia-based Offender Management Systems to wear one of the GPS monitors.
For some defendants, wearing a monitor means they can live at home and hold a job while awaiting trial.
"You're balancing the rights of a person who has only been charged with a crime and is presumed innocent under the law, with the fact that they may have been accused of doing something pretty bad," said Young. "This gives some more assurance that person is not going to flee, and is not going to go around victims or be somewhere they shouldn't be, and is going to stay home and be on their best behavior."
Offender Management Systems will handle most day-to-day monitoring issues, such as low-battery alerts, with the Sheriff's Department monitoring more urgent issues, such as people going into prohibited areas known as "exclusion zones."
For example, a defendant might be ordered to stay away from a victim's home and place of work. If the monitor-wearing person crossing into one of those areas, the monitoring system would issue an alert, and in some cases a victim could be directly notified.
Young said he does not know when monitoring might return to Berkeley County, which unlike Charleston County has not contracted with Offender Management Systems.
Charleston County makes no money from the monitoring fees, but also bears none of the cost. Young said there could be some cost savings at the county jail, but that's a minor consideration.
"It certainly eliminates the cost of feeding them, and transfers the cost of monitoring them to the defendant, but that didn't really play into my decision to do it," he said. "To me, it's really a no-brainer as long as you have a reliable system.
Reach David Slade at 937-5552