Electronic security considered

Morgan hill
– County officials hope an electronic surveillance system will
end the runaway problem at Morgan Hill’s juvenile detention center,
but frustrated neighbors are worried the county won’t go far enough
to protect the neighborhood.
Morgan hill – County officials hope an electronic surveillance system will end the runaway problem at Morgan Hill’s juvenile detention center, but frustrated neighbors are worried the county won’t go far enough to protect the neighborhood.

In coming weeks, Santa Clara County Executive Pete Kutras will recommend that the board of supervisors commit to spending close to half a million dollars annually to install and operate a global positioning system at the William F. James Boys Ranch.

“It’s extremely expensive, potentially, but I think it’s a possibility to give us the security we’re looking for,” Kutras said Tuesday. “GPS is a quantum leap in community security.”

Supervisor Don Gage said he expects the board to endorse the system.

“I don’t think it will be a problem,” Gage said. “They realize we have a problem down there and we need to deal with it. I’d be surprised if anybody on the board is going to balk at keeping people safe.”

GPS holds the potential to construct a virtual fence around the ranch, which is set in a wooded, rural area on Malaguerra Avenue in northeast Morgan Hill near Anderson Lake Park. The ranch does not have a fence and is prohibited by state law from locking its doors. Many residents in the affluent housing developments that have sprouted around the ranch in recent years are opposed to a chain and razor wire fence because they fear it will foster a prison-like atmosphere and lower property values. Gage said such a fence surrounding the sprawling compound could cost as much as $5 million.

If the GPS system is adopted, each ward at the ranch – there are currently 81 – will be fitted with an ankle transmitter. If a youth leaves the grounds, his movements can be tracked on the Internet. Chief Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell said the system will alert ranch staff the moment a ward leaves the grounds and will lead law enforcement to any youth’s exact location.

Mark Trampe, of ISecureTrac in Omaha, Neb., said Wednesday that GPS systems do have limits. It’s possible for the transmission signal to be interrupted and the devices can be removed. But Trampe said that most systems emit instant alerts whenever devices are tampered with or removed.

“GPS tracking is not meant to stop crimes from happening. If someone wants to leave or tamper with the equipment, there’s nothing to stop them,” Trampe said. “Our goal is to detect that and make it available to authorities so officers can react and find out what’s going on.”

Initial estimates for the system have come in between $290,000 and $400,000 annually. Kutras is already scrambling to make up a $127 million deficit for the fiscal year starting July 1, and he said the system will be funded indefinitely with contingency funds, which Kutras has already tapped to post a sheriff’s deputy at the ranch 12 hours each day.

The extra security has been in place since a January gang fight at the ranch led to four escapes and outraged the community. Residents have castigated county officials for ignoring runaway incidents and not being upfront about the serious and violent offenses committed by some of the youths housed there.

Nearly a third of the 1,068 boys sent to the ranch since 2000 have been convicted of a “serious crime against people,” a category that includes assault with a deadly weapon. The ranch has housed arsonists, car thieves and boys convicted of date rape and committing lewd acts with children younger than 14.

The ranch has averaged about one escape per week in that time. Two wards escaped for a few hours March 9.

The three dozen residents who attended a community meeting Tuesday night at the DePaul Medical Center, about a mile from the ranch, voiced support for moving the ranch to a more remote location, but were encouraged by the way the county is responding to their concerns.

“The bracelet idea is a great moderate step and let’s get it rolling,” said Jim Weldon of St. Marks Court. But after Kutras told the gathering that the ranch will not be moved, Weldon, who has a 7-year-old daughter, said he’s convinced the ranch will eventually leave the neighborhood.

“The trigger point is that one of our children is going to get hurt,” he said. “That’s the joke, that’s the elephant in the room.”

David Cervantes, also of St. Marks Court, said he was pleased to see the county taking action, but wants officials to focus more on changing the population of the ranch.

“This is a positive step, but I get the sense they’re still missing the point about the type of inmate being sent here” Cervantes said. “That’s the bigger issue.”

In the past, residents have complained that it’s too easy for escaped wards to blend in the community. Tuesday, Mitchell displayed new brown and green uniforms for the wards. The crowd was not impressed. One attendee said the youths would look like park rangers. Put them in pink or purple or orange, he suggested.

Sue Burrell, a staff attorney with the Youth Law Center in San Francisco said Wednesday that money invested in GPS might be better spent on additional staff and programs at the ranch.

“That seems like a drastic and intrusive step,” Burrell said. “If you’re in a facility it seems like there should be some way to contain you without putting a device on you. At least if they build a fence the boys can have their liberty when they are on the grounds.”

Mitchell said that she does not expect the monitoring system to be a cure-all. She said her staff will continue to revamp ranch programs to make youth less likely to run away and will work hard to keep flight risks and dangerous offenders out of the ranch.

Resident Greg Claytor has said he thinks the ranch should be moved to a more remote location, but said the steps officials have taken in recent weeks are “better than nothing.”

“What it will take for me,” Claytor said. “Is that a year-and-a-half from now I’m walking in the creek bed with my son, or mowing my lawn, and I have to stop and scratch my head because I can’t remember the last time I heard about an escape.”

The board will vote on adopting GPS on either April 19 or May 3.

What’s the cost?

A GPS will cost the county as much as $400,000 a year. That will buy:

• 100 ankle transmitters

• establishing a virtual perimeter

• monitoring

• data collection

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