Lee Magistrate Court Judge Jim Thurman discusses the ankle bracelet house arrest program in Lee County. (Staff Photo: Danny Carter)
Ankle Bracelet Program
Lee County Commission Chairman Rick Muggridge discusses the ankle bracelet program.
LEESBURG — There’s no denying that the cost of an ankle bracelet monitoring program which allows some offenders in Lee Magistrate Court to serve their punishment under house arrest is increasing.
But Judge Jim Thurman says the basic numbers don’t tell the entire story. The numbers show the ankle monitoring program cost Lee taxpayers about $160,000 a year, while restitution fees paid by those charged recoup only about 25 percent of that total.
However, if not for the house arrest program, Thurman contends the cost of housing the defendants in jail would be substantially higher, especially when taking into account the medical expense of the inmates.
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Thurman said many of the people sentenced in his court with mental, alcohol or drug problems also have health problems that typically require medical attention soon after being incarcerated.
“With the house arrest program, they can continue to work, can pay fines and pay the cost of the house arrest,” Thurman said.
Thurman and Lee County Commissioners discussed the program during a work session Tuesday night to discuss ways of reducing expenses.
Thurman said the poor economy is preventing many defendants from paying fines and restitution.
“Fine collection is at rock bottom.” Thurman said. “People just don’t have the money. They come back to us saying they can’t pay and they’ll just have to go to jail.”
Thurman said the program has its blemishes. Some people are unwilling to abide by the ground rules of house confinement and problems have occurred with the companies monitoring their movement. Thurman said Lee is working with its fourth monitoring company after problems with the first three.
Thurman said he hopes to have restitution figures up to around 45 percent of the direct costs of the program this year.
“We just wanted Judge Thurman to educate us on a budget line item that has grown every year,” said Lee Commission Chairman Rick Muggridge.
“We’ve heard the same things the public has heard about the times that it has gone terrible wrong, but we are satisfied Judge Thurman and his staff are monitoring that.”
Muggridge agreed with Thurman that the program does reduce the expense of operating the county jail.
“And, I don’t want to see a first-time offender spend time in our jail system,.” Muggridge said. “I do want to see a first-time offender learn a lesson and hopefully change their life so they don’t become a second-time offender. I don’t think jail is the right answer for everybody.”
In other action, Commissioners discussed the possibility of adding a $75 fee for people who call for ambulance service, but later elect not to be transported. Lee County had a similar fee in place previously, but discontinued it because of collection problems.
Bobby Watkins, who directs the EMS service in Lee County, said his employees encourage everyone who requests an ambulance be taken in for treatment.
“We’re not doctors and not in the business of assessing you and telling you not to go,” Watkins said.
He said about a third of the EMS calls result in non-transport situations. Some of those are legitimate, Watkins said, but some people abuse the system.
Watkins said some people will call for routine assistance such as wanting their blood pressure checked or seeking guidance on routine health matters.
“We don’t want to be a mobile clinic service,” said Lee County Manager Ron Rabun. “We want to be an emergency service.”
The goal of the fee, Rabun said, is not to grow revenue but to eliminate as many of the frivolous calls as possible.
No decision was made by the commission during the monthly work session.