Probation Chief Powers acknowledges electronic monitoring failures

By ELIZABETH MARCELLINO, City News Service
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LOS ANGELES (CNS) – The county’s chief probation officer today acknowledged serious problems with the electronic monitoring technology meant to track probationers, including about two dozen high-risk offenders.

`We didn’t monitor the contract the way we should have,” Probation Chief Jerry Powers said. “We take responsibility for that … the vendor was allowed to provide some inferior equipment.”

Equipment failures, mistakes made in moving offenders to inactive status and a failure to monitor some probationers altogether were among the issues discovered during an extensive review of the Probation Department’s three contracts with Sentinel Offender Services.

The Orange County Probation Department terminated a Sentinel contract last August, alleging “gross negligence.” The technology firm is also the subject of multiple lawsuits filed on the East Coast, according to Powers.

The probation chief was contrite before the Board of Supervisors today, saying that the department failed to effectively train probation officers to be GPS experts.

About three dozen officers were responsible for monitoring 300 to 350 probationers under active GPS monitoring, about half the caseload allowed under correctional best practices. But those 37 officers juggled that job with lots of other responsibilities and didn’t have the training to make the right decisions, according to Powers.

“This was not a failure of probation staff, it was a failure of probation management,” Powers said.

Dead batteries, blocked signals and an onslaught of alarms that came to be routinely ignored plagued a system designed to keep the public safe while reducing jail overcrowding.

Sentinel was quick to upgrade equipment and modify battery chargers when asked, Powers said, but he couldn’t answer a question from Supervisor Michael Antonovich about whether the contractor knew the equipment was insufficient from the start.

Supervisor Gloria Molina praised Powers for his honest appraisal, calling his report a model for other county departments. She was cynical about Sentinel’s role.

“A contractor’s going to try and get away with whatever he can get away with,” Molina said, adding later that “95 percent of it was our fault.”

The Sentinel contract expires in October, but Powers said he’d have to renew the contract for some time while exploring updated technology.

Antonovich disagreed.

“I don’t feel compelled to continue with a vendor that has failed and has been warned,” Antonovich said.

The Sheriff’s Department uses the Sentinel technology to track about 140 offenders, but the head of the department’s Countywide Services Division told the board that GPS was used to monitor offenders within sheriff’s stations and a drug treatment center, not those “walking around.”

“Our challenges are different,” Chief Eric Parra said.

The department had some problems with the vendor, including signals that couldn’t penetrate certain secure facilities, but Parra said Sentinel had been “responsive” and that he was satisfied with the contract overall.

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