Home detention monitoring system criticised

EVAN HARDING
Last updated 05:00 31/08/2012

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Criminals could have been unjustly convicted of breaching their home detention sentences in the past because of the "cheap" home monitoring system used by the Corrections Department, an electronics professor believes.

University of Waikato foundation professor of electronics Jonathan Scott said yesterday that the system used by the Corrections Department could not determine the exact location of the offender on home detention.

When the signal from an offender's ankle bracelet was lost the department had no way of knowing if the offender had absconded from the property, or the signal had simply been lost, Prof Scott said.

The system was "no more reliable than a cellphone", he said.

The signal was lost for "all sorts of reasons", including when people lived in homes with multiple-layered metal roofs, he said.

"The more lots of metal you have around the more likely the site is to be troublesome. In one case every time an offender got into a cast-iron bath it looked like she had left the property - the cast- iron bath upsets the signal."

If the department used the more- expensive GPS system it would know the precise location of the offender at all times, he said.

"I believe people are dragged into court for breaching their home detention when they didn't actually do it."

The issue was highlighted when Faaitaita Lelani Aluni appeared in Invercargill District Court yesterday on two charges of breaching the conditions of her home detention sentence. The department alleged she unlawfully left her curfew address for short periods of time.

She denied having left the address and her lawyer Kate McHugh had planned to call Prof Scott to the witness box. Prof Scott, who had been flown from Hamilton for the hearing, was going to say that Aluni lived in a house with a multiple-layered metal roof that may have caused the signal from her bracelet to disappear. However, he never made it to the witness box because the trial was halted halfway through.

With prompting from Judge Phillips, a deal was struck during a break in the hearing, with one of the charges withdrawn and Aluni pleading guilty to the other charge. Judge Phillips discharged her without conviction.

The court heard there were monitoring issues at the property in which Aluni was serving her sentence because of its shape and proximity to nearby houses. A second home monitoring system had to be installed to cover the "black spots" on the property, which was uncommon.

Subsequent testing of the property by authorities on five occasions determined it to be a suitable location for home detention.

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Judge Phillips said the electronic equipment had worked as well as it could have, adding the Aluni hearing was not a test case of the equipment.

The judge said the case highlighted that some properties were not suitable for home detention. He recommended the probation service develop a list of property types that were suitable and those that were not suitable.

People who were convicted of breaching home detention went to prison, he said.

"If I have concerns about properties being suitable it could negate the whole sentencing process - if there is anything to come out of this the (probation service) has to be more careful in approving properties for home detention."

After the court hearing, a Corrections Department spokesman said electronic monitoring was reliable and had been in place in New Zealand since 1999.

An alert triggered on the home detention monitoring system was not evidence of a breach on its own; the department always investigated further, he said.

The department had recently introduced GPS tracking technology for a few high-risk offenders.

- The Southland Times

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