Montgomery County courts have strengthened their response to people who violate house arrest after recent high-profile suspects cut their ankle monitors, but the prosecutor says the program should be scrapped for alleged violent crimes because it puts the public at risk.
In two recent examples, a soccer coach accused of sex crimes escaped to Florida and another man allegedly beat a woman nearly to death.
The improved security includes issuing a “be-on-the -lookout” notice to area police agencies, contacting the arresting agency and alerting the prosecutor handling the case, according to Interim Deputy Court Administrator Mary Kay Stirling. She oversees the pre-trial division that handles home detention.
Those extra steps are in addition to the previous protocols of issuing a temporary arrest warrant and checking in on the victims, she said.
But Montgomery County Prosecutor Mat Heck said recent cases show house arrest should be taken off the table for accused violent offenders. Judges and defense attorneys say home detention is a necessary tool with statistically few violators.
Justin Smith, who left the courthouse in downtown Dayton during a lunch break from his trial on sex crimes in November, disabled his ankle monitor somewhere near Franklin. He was found 45 days later in Florida.
Smith’s 14-year-old victim and her family were petrified while he was at large, Heck said.
And on Aug. 2, Travion Montgomery cut off his ankle bracelet while under house arrest on a robbery charge. Montgomery had prior convictions for aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery and kidnappng.
Court officials issued a warrant but didn’t notify the arresting agency or prosecutors. Dayton police picked up Montgomery on Aug. 3 responding to a call about an attempted suicide. A Dayton medic transported him to Miami Valley Hospital for a mental health evaluation. He was released from the hospital without being taken back to jail. The situation was further confused when a new warrant was issued with the wrong Social Security Number.
Montgomery was arrested Sept. 10 after allegedly choking a woman and leaving her on life support. He is now in jail on a $500,000 bond.
Judges can also establish the courthouse itself as an “inclusion zone,” meaning the system would activate if someone there for a trial left the building, Stirling said. This could address situations like the Smith case.
“Unfortunately something like this makes you look at (the program) and see what more you can possibly do,” Stirling said of the recent incidents and changes.
Few violators, high profile examples
The law requires that nearly everyone is entitled to bail, Stirling said, so electronic home monitoring adds a second level of oversight.
More than 700 people were on monitoring last year, she said, and the court issued 12 warrants to violators. Over the decades thousands of people have been on electronic monitoring, she said, and only four have become high-profile cases.
Those include Smith, Montgomery and a 1999 case when a man disconnected his monitor before killing a man and wounding four others. And in 2000 a man accused of tying up his estranged wife then killed her and two others while he was on work-release.
Heck brought up these cases and 50 others around the country in an October email to judges arguing that people accused of violent crimes shouldn’t have the option of house arrest.
“There’s no question that we’ve seen here in Montgomery County and nationwide that this idea of the ankle bracelet is one of the most misunderstood, overrated and overused trend in the justice system,” Heck said in a recent interview. “How many more people are going to have to die, how many more people have to be seriously hurt before they realize that the ankle bracelet does not work?”
Attorney: Program protects taxpayers, defendants
Defense attorney Jon Paul Rion said electronic monitoring saves taxpayers money because it’s cheaper than jailing someone.
It also “protects the presumption of innocence,” Rion said. “So (a suspect) is not punished, if you will, by sitting in jail waiting for a court date when they’re presumed to be completely innocent of the charge.
“To take the exception and to somehow now make that the rule would be a great disservice to our jails, to the taxpayers and to the defendants,” he said.
Stirling’s team uses a standardized risk assessment tool to determine a defendant’s bond and whether he or she should be considered for house arrest. Based on that they make a recommendation to the judge, who makes the decision.
“We work really hard to make sure we are not incarcerating people who do not need to be in jail in the sense that they’re not a risk and they’re not a flight risk,” said Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Kate Huffman.
She noted that absconders are rare, considering the number of people on house arrest.
“I am not demeaning in any way the horrific things that happened in those … cases,” she said. “But we don’t have a crystal ball and we can’t predict what every person will do.”
Huffman, who sits on a Ohio Supreme Court bail reform task force, said she has “a lot of confidence” in the people monitoring the home detention program.