Crime & Justice

Los Angeles County Probation Department finds flaws in electronic monitoring

A man wearing his ankle monitoring bracelet, April 6, 2012.
A man wearing his ankle monitoring bracelet, April 6, 2012.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

Management issues and a failure to hold an outside vendor accountable led to serious flaws in a program that monitors offenders in Los Angeles County, Probation Chief Jerry Powers told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

"This was not a GPS problem, it was not a probation officer problem, it was a problem with oversight of a contract," Powers said.

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About five years ago, the county signed a contract with Sentinel Offender Services to provide various forms of electronic monitoring to adults and children supervised by the L.A. County Probation Department. In 2011, when prison realignment shifted responsibility for thousands of parolees to county probation departments, L.A. County relied on Sentinel's services to supervise hundreds of former prisoners.

But, Powers said, inferior technology, a lack of training and management's failure to hold the contractor accountable doomed the program. Probation officers dealt with thousands of alerts emitting from the electronic monitors, overwhelming the system with reports of low batteries, possible tampering by offenders and weak transmissions.

According to Powers' report, Sentinel also had issues elsewhere, drawing complaints and cancelled contracts in Orange County and on the East Coast.

In May 2013, L.A. County Probation conducted a review and found a host of problems with the service.

"We found issues around equipment failure, they weren't providing the monitoring service that they were supposed to provide," Powers told the Board. "We found that offenders were being placed into inactive status without consulting with probation. And we found that they weren't complying with placing offenders equipment on them within 24 hours."

The department confronted Sentinel, which agreed to changes, like providing better equipment and longer-lasting batteries. Since then, Powers said, alerts have gone down at least 25 percent.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich questioned Powers over why Sentinel has not yet been fired.

"There was a failure of the contractor to abide by the contract," Antonovich said.

Supervisor Gloria Molina, however, said the contractor wasn't the main problem.

"Contractors will always get away with anything they can," Molina said. County departments, she said, often fail to monitor their contractors and insist on the best services.

"We have to fix ourselves first," she said, though she agreed with Antonovich that Sentinel might not be the best company for the job. 

Powers said the Probation Department has another audit underway, which should be complete in two weeks, and it will assess whether problems with Sentinel persist.

Meanwhile, Chief Eric Parra of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department said their contract with Sentinel has been fruitful and the Sheriff's Department is satisfied with their services.