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No-contract GPS monitoring raises questions of fairness, safety

This article first appeared in the Orlando Sentinel. View original here
5 Mar

No-contract GPS monitoring raises questions of fairness, safety

Though the company has no formal agreement with Orange County, Court Programs Inc. is 'the only game in town.'

If you're a criminal defendant in Orange County and a judge orders GPS monitoring, you must pay a private company $12 a day for the service — significantly more than in neighboring counties — and you have no choice in selecting the vendor.

Court Programs Inc. is the only GPS company doing business here, but it enjoys that exclusive position without having gone through a competitive bidding process, without any contract and with fewer specific guidelines for ensuring victim safety.

CPI's dealings in Orange are a point of pride for Dick Batchelor, one of Central Florida's most influential lobbyists. CPI hired Batchelor in 2006 as a liaison between the company and Orange judges — a fact he boasts of on his website.

Six years later, Chief Judge Belvin Perry acknowledges the company is "the only game in town," with exclusive access to hundreds of clients every year. A monopoly isn't what Perry intended, he said, when he wrote the administrative order governing GPS monitoring for high-risk defendants in 2008.

But with CPI gaining an early foothold in the market, no other satellite-monitoring provider has stepped in. Usually, when a government body hires a private company, there is a public request for bids and a contract spelling out the specific terms of service. But no one actually hired CPI.

"There's no public money involved," said Batchelor, founder and president of the Dick Batchelor Management Group, while asserting that "there's no requirement to have a contract" and nothing keeping other companies away.

In an official statement, SecureAlert Inc., which acquired CPI after Perry's administrative order, asserted that no tax dollars are used in the Orange County GPS program, and "millions of dollars have been saved by the County because of lower incarceration expenses."

'No oversight'

GPS monitoring uses satellites to track the movement of high-risk defendants out on bail while waiting for court appearances. It's typically used when a defendant's release could pose a threat to the victim — domestic-violence cases are a common example.

CPI has come under fire for issues ranging from complaints about its cost to concerns over quality control and victim safety.

•A former CPI employee was found in contempt of court last month for filing a fraudulent document that resulted in one defendant being tossed back in jail.

•In 2010, CourtWatch, a local watchdog group, documented two cases in which defendants placed on CPI's GPS monitoring while awaiting trials on child-sex charges had fled the country.

CourtWatch founder Laura Williams noted on her blog that GPS monitoring can be a "win-win" for all involved — but only if law enforcement is notified of violations, which is not a condition of Perry's order.

"We are concerned that there is little to no oversight of this company as it is tasked with monitoring some dangerous offenders in our community," Williams noted. In SecureAlert's statement, the parent company said judges in these two cases failed to identify the airport as a prohibited area.

In neighboring Osceola and Seminole counties, GPS is contracted to individual companies with specific terms spelled out in contracts dozens of pages long. But Perry's four-page order remains the only document governing GPS in Orange.

Perry told the Sentinel he first learned of Court Programs because the company's representatives had approached judges individually to pitch their product. In his order, Perry envisioned a list of approved GPS companies, with the provider selected by individual defendants. No such list exists today.

Chief Deputy Orange County Comptroller Jim Moye questioned whether CPI's competitors were made aware of the administrative order back in 2008 or whether the company got "an advantage" by being let in the door first.

"It was fair," Batchelor said. "They [CPI] went out and made the contacts they needed to make."

SecureAlert insists that the current arrangement isn't a financial boon for its subsidiary, CPI. Twenty percent to 50 percent of defendants each quarter fail to pay their fees, the company says.

'How did we get here?'

Seminole and Osceola counties use the same company for monitoring, iSECUREtrac. Asked why that company isn't doing business in Orange, CEO Lincoln Zehr said the "vast majority" of iSECUREtrac's contracts involve bidding or a purchasing alliance.

"The absence of a bidding process certainly makes one question: How did we get here?" said Zehr, adding an "incumbent" company always has an advantage in these situations.

Court Programs charges Orange County defendants about $12 a day for monitoring. In Osceola, defendants pay $4.90 per day; in Seminole, the monitoring costs defendants $8.25 to $9.75 per day. In Osceola and Seminole, the programs are partially subsidized with public money.

Other GPS companies said Orange County's approach is unusual, but were reluctant to discuss the matter openly, unwilling to jeopardize potential future business here.

And while Perry's order prohibits judges from directing clients to a specific GPS company, a Sentinel analysis of pre-trial jail-release records from 2010 and 2011 revealed that in more than 560 of the 800-plus times an Orange County judge ordered a defendant to GPS, CPI was specifically named.

"I'm aware of it, and I have advised judges not to do that," Perry said.

CPI also was given a small office in the Orange County Courthouse. Court spokeswoman Karen Levey said it was only used sparsely in late 2010 and not at all in 2011. After the Sentinel asked about the 10th-floor room, a CPI sign was removed from the door Friday.

Nonetheless, CPI remains the vendor Orange judges rely on for defendants they want monitored by GPS.

In June, Circuit Judge Renee Roche ordered it for Larry Duggan. But his pre-trial release was revoked in October after CPI employee Justin Martin reported Duggan had failed to show up for a meeting or respond to "numerous" contact attempts. Roche last month found Martin in contempt of court, determining those claims were not true. Duggan in fact had fallen behind in his payments and owed CPI $1,250 — but owing the company money does not qualify as a violation.

Roche seemed most surprised by Martin's testimony that he had seen Duggan twice and they had spoken only six or seven times by phone in about four months of monitoring. When she ordered GPS monitoring of Duggan, an aggravated-stalking suspect, she expected much more would be done to keep tabs on him, the judge said.

"It was always this court's belief that that monitoring meant something other than putting the device on someone's ankle and then waiting for it to sound," she said, adding that CPI's monitoring "left a lot to be desired."

Not all judges share her view. In fact, two circuit judges in Orange penned recommendation letters when the company sought to expand its business.

GPS monitoring varies by county in Florida. In some, the corrections or probation department oversees inmates on release, while in others, the local Sheriff's Office is in charge. There is generally some law-enforcement involvement.

In Seminole County, iSECUREtrac is required by contract to provide updates to the Sheriff's Office within minutes in the case of violations and technical malfunctions.

In Orange, under the terms of Perry's order, the GPS company reports violations to the judge within one business day. If the violation occurs late on a Friday, it could be days before the judge becomes aware. And the company is not required to notify law enforcement at all. The order does, however, require victim notification within minutes.

Perry said he has been approached recently by another GPS provider looking to move into Orange County, and nothing in his order would prevent that.

"Of course, as you know, competition does tend to drive the prices down," Perry said, adding, "I am a red-blooded American who always likes to see competition."

jeweiner@tribune.com or 407-420-5171