Lehigh County considers GPS system that lets jail inmates serve time at home

Written by on February 11, 2022

Lehigh County considers GPS system that lets jail inmates serve time at home

By Tyler Pratt
February 11, 2022

ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Jail time for some in Lehigh County may soon mean serving it at home.

Officials are moving forward on a plan to let a few incarcerated individuals live and work in their communities, tracked around the clock by GPS. 

Before the pandemic, Lehigh County inmates on work-release stayed in a separate building. They could leave and work jobs. But in the heat of the COVID surge in December 2020, the county shut it down, and 15 months later, all inmates are still on lockdown.

Movement is limited, visitors are restricted and staff are stretched thin. 

Lehigh County Corrections Director Janine Donate is now taking the next steps on a proposal to get a new work-release program up and running.

“So absent using the brick-and-mortar building, we want to maintain that re-entry service for our inmate population. It’s very important,” Donate told the county’s courts and corrections committee this week. “The difference is they won’t be coming back to a building to sleep at night. They’ll be in their own residence — how we maintain that security – as they are still under the confinement of the Department of Corrections through a GPS bracelet.” 

Donate said the new program may ease some of the strain on the jail caused by COVID-19 and help cut costs.  Housing inmates in the jail costs the county about $100 a day. The GPS trackers — they are $5 each. 

Inmates also pay to participate in the work-release program. But Donate said where that fee used to be $15 a day to stay at the work-release center, the new amount for inmates will be half of that. 

“Our goals are to create a means to have inmates return to society and be as successful as they can with that re-entry process,” Donate said in an email to WLVR News. “Job skill development, career counseling, social counseling, support group development, are programs that we continue to develop and grow.

“The bracelet plan will assist us in providing an avenue to get more ‘qualified’ inmates into a Community Corrections program, while maintaining the requirements of their judiciary sentence.  This is only one tool for re-entry, and we will continue to investigate and execute on programs that have merit.” 

Donate found a GPS systems company – American Monitoring Sales Corp. –  to provide the bracelets, software and training. It runs a similar program in Montgomery County.  

Lehigh County home rule and administrative codes typically require certain procedures for seeking bids from outside vendors. But the corrections department sought a waiver from the county commissioners to help expedite the process and get a contract signed quickly so that it can begin enrolling inmates in the program. 

Donate said she hopes the corrections department can begin training staff on how to use the new GPS system in March.

Lehigh County will also use county-allocated American Rescue Plan funds to kick off the program. 

“The estimated cost is based upon the number of participants, which may range anywhere from 10 to 30 participants,” Donate told WLVR News. “The cost is based upon how many bracelets are active each day.  You do not pay for equipment not being used, so the cost could range from $20,000-$50,000.” 

Donate and members of the Lehigh County courts and corrections committee said if the program goes well, they could seek funding elsewhere down the line. 

“We will continue to develop programs, where the costs of the bracelet can be a revenue source for Lehigh County,” Donate said.  “We believe this program is sustainable.” 

But not all of the jail’s more than 750 inmates will get an ankle bracelet.  Only 20 or 30 inmates will be eligible, if the full board of commissioners signs off on the final contract. 

Donate said Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin has agreed to the new work-release program. And courts and corrections committee Chairman Dave Harrington said he supports it and also says it’s safe.

“These are folks that the judges in their discretion have determined not to be threats to the community,” Harrington told the committee Wednesday. “We’re not releasing murderers or anything like that.”

On Wednesday night, the county commissioners approved the  waiver for the corrections department to enter into contract negotiations with American Monitoring Sales Corp. Most board members stated they supported the new work-release plan. 

Donate told the board if the new plan is successful, GPS work-release could be a new model in Lehigh County to help incarcerated people re-enter society – even after the pandemic ends.

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