The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved an expansion of the county's electronic house-arrest program to 75 inmates at a time and raised the possibility of eventually including higher-risk inmates, who would be monitored by more sophisticated equipment.
The county Probation Department began the experimental program a year ago. Under it, some work-furlough inmates, who normally would spend nights and weekends in jail and days working at their usual jobs, spend nights and weekends at home instead.
An inmate's presence at home is monitored by electronic bracelets, which the person inserts into a telephone when a computer calls at random times around the clock.
The program has included up to 25 people at a time and a total of 133 inmates. Only four were caught violating rules of the program, three by having alcohol in their houses and one by committing a new offense.
Most of those under house arrest were convicted of drunk driving, and many had already spent some time at the James A. Musick branch jail near El Toro, Probation Department officials said.
Supervisor Don R. Roth said the program had freed badly needed jail space for higher-risk offenders and had proved itself as a "cost-effective alternative" to jail.
The electronic bracelets that are used under the current program are known as a "passive" monitoring system. Roth asked the county's chief probation officer, Michael Schumacher, "What about using active electronic surveillance for other types of inmates?"
"It's certainly a possibility," Schumacher replied. "If we decided to have a look at some other (criminals) that have a bit more risk factor to them, then we'd probably suggest more sophisticated equipment, the kind, for example, that monitors one's presence at all times."
Active surveillance systems involve the use of a transmitter that is worn by the inmate and signals his or her presence to a receiver-dialer combination attached to a phone. If the wearer goes outside the physical limits programmed into the transmitter, the connection is broken and the telephone calls a Probation Department computer and alerts it that the inmate has wandered off.
A report to the supervisors by Marie Whittington of the Probation Department noted that such active systems now are less dependable technologically and require more staff for monitoring.
She said they can also be five times more expensive than the passive systems.
The Probation Department estimated the annual cost of a 75-inmate house arrest program at $287,657, counting the cost of the probation officers who visit the inmates periodically to supplement the electronic equipment. Charges to participants in the program are expected to bring the county $113,000 a year.
Whittington said the numbers work out to a cost of about $10 per day per inmate on the program, compared to a cost of $20 to $50 a day to keep an inmate in jail.
Schumacher said that when the program began last year, several months after San Diego County pioneered electronic house arrest in California, there were about half a dozen such programs in the country. Now there are 70 or 80, he said.