Massachusetts’ highest court last Friday upheld the right of county sheriffs to allow certain inmates to serve portions of their sentences at home wearing GPS monitoring devices, rebuffing a judge who said such powers intruded on the judiciary’s authority.
The state Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decision came in the case of Edward Donohue, a man sentenced to serve 18 months for his third drunken driving offense.
Middlesex County Sheriff James DiPaola’s office released him from the Billerica House of Correction in September 2007 after he had served about six months, and said he could serve the rest of his sentence under home confinement while wearing a global position satellite bracelet to track his location.
Donohue was required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, attend a weekly class at a counseling center and perform weekly community service.
When Donohue went to court to request a lawyer for his appeal, Judge Diane Kottmyer told DiPaola he did not have the authority to declare Donohue’s personal residence a “place of confinement.”
The judge ordered DiPaola to confine Donohue in the Billerica House of Correction. She also ordered the sheriff to return to the House of Correction any other defendants who had been released into the GPS program before completing sentences imposed by a judge.
The SJC overturned Kottmyer’s ruling, saying that once a judge sentences a defendant, the sheriff controls the conditions of his incarceration.
State law “does not mandate that the sheriff physically confine all offenders within the four walls of the house of correction for the entire length of the ‘committed’ portions of their sentences,” Justice Francis Spina wrote for the majority in the 6-1 decision.
“To the contrary, the statutory scheme confers on the sheriff the authority to permit certain eligible inmates to participate in a variety of programs outside the correctional facility.”
In a dissent, Justice Judith Cowin said state laws assume that an inmate taking part in an education, training or employment programs outside a correctional facility will continue to be housed in a facility while participating in the program.
“The GPS program, by releasing a committed offender into his own home, thus exceeds the sheriff’s authority under governing law,” Cowin wrote.
DiPaola praised the ruling, saying the GPS program eases jail overcrowding and helps inmates back into the community.
“With the exception of someone who is doing life with parole, all inmates are going to come back to our community, and it’s best for us to be able to see how they operate — with some checks and balances — in that community before we in fact release them back into that community,” DiPaola said.
About 10 inmates, or 1 percent, of the approximately 1,000 inmates in Middlesex are in the GPS program at any given time, DiPaola said.
“You’ve got to be the right kind of inmate to move along. You have to have a job, a residence to live in, and you’ve got to continue your therapeutic treatment,” he said.
Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office, which represented the Superior Court in challenging the GPS system, issued a statement saying the SJC’s ruling “will help guide the Commonwealth’s judges and sheriffs in sentencing matters.”