House arrest is an idea that can have fearful connotations; in some foreign lands it is used to restrict the movement of political dissenters. But in the U.S. several local and at least one federal court have begun to experiment with the concept as an alternative to the imprisonment of persons convicted of relatively minor, nonviolent crimes. Among other advantages house arrests could alleviate jailhouse overcrowding and cut costs.
In September, for example, a federal judge in Brooklyn sentenced a woman convicted of insurance fraud to two years confinement at home, during which time she may leave the house only to go to work, to shop or for medical or religious reasons. In this case she is subject to surveillance by probation officers through visits and phone calls. But several communities in Oregon, Kentucky and Florida already are using a far more sophisticated monitoring system involving "electronic cuffs" devised by Tom Moody, 29, of Plantation Key, Fla.
Here's how Moody's system works: The cuff—including a tubular, three-ounce, battery-powered radio transmitter—is fastened with a tough, rivet-closed strap around the prisoner's ankle or wrist. (Waterproof, it can be worn in the bath.) A portable typewriter-size monitor in the detainee's home is plugged into a wall socket and a phone jack. If the cuffed person goes beyond a 150-foot radius of the monitor, a signal is sent by telephone to a central station, alerting police. The system handles as many as 500 simultaneous reports and can be programmed to allow detainees to leave home at specified times.
The Controlled Activities Corporation, run by Moody and wife Bonnie, sells the transmitter-and-monitor units for under $1,000. Linn County, Oreg. uses them, and probation supervisor John Tuthill says Moody's system costs the county $5 a day—versus a $50 daily jail tab—to keep a person under house arrest. Tuthill, whose "ankle arrests" are mostly drunk drivers, points out that the system is also more humane, since it allows prisoners to stay with their families.
Indeed the Moodys have even heard of cases in which the wives of cuffed drunk drivers have pleaded—plaintively, if also futilely—that monitors not be removed after sentences are served. Says Bonnie: "The wives say it's the first time their husbands were ever home every night."