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Randolph County could become the first county in North Carolina to implement a surveillance program aimed at saving money and easing an overcrowded jail.

A four-member board would review criminal records and family backgrounds of suspected felons and drug dealers who can't make bond.If approved, the board would release some of them before their trial if they voluntarily enroll in a program that would do everything from finding them a job to monitoring their every move with an electronic ankle bracelet.

``This will keep defendants in the community, keep them employed ... and help them have a stronger family relationship, which we feel will keep them from committing crimes in the future,' District Judge Richard Toomes told the Randolph County Board of Commissioners on Monday night.

``It's not that these defendants are more evil or nefarious than anyone else,' Toomes continued. ``They just don't have the money to put up bond.'

The proposal, known as the pre-trial release supervision program, would make Randolph the first county in the state and one of the first in the nation to implement a surveillance program whose backbone is a computer tracking system, Toomes said.

The program, which Toomes said has had a high success rate in California and Washington, would cost the county between $70,000 and $92,000 the first year to help pay a supervising officer and to buy a computer, 20 electronic surveillance ankle bracelets and other monitoring equipment.

But county officials, all of whom supported the program, decided to give the proposal further review after several funding questions arose.

Darrell Frye, the commissioners' chairman, urged Toomes to find out if court fees or new fees could be used to pay for program equipment.

``We're not saying it's not a good program, but we've got to know where we'll get the funding,' Frye said.

The board is expected to make a decision later this month.

During his 45-minute presentation, Toomes urged county officials to approve the proposal during a time when everyone from Gov. Jim Martin to county officials are trying to relieve overcrowded jails across North Carolina.

Between 1981 and 1988, inmate population across North Carolina has increased 47 percent. But in Randolph County, the inmate population has increased 87 percent - almost double the state percentage - and has cost $24 a day.

This program, however, would cost the county $2.50 a day. It aims to release about 40 prisoners - or half of the jail's inmate population - giving an 84-year-old jail much needed space to house more violent criminals.

The released inmates would pay $10 a week to take part in a program in which they would agree to follow curfews, take drug tests, accept a regular job and telephone county law enforcement officers daily.

Or the released inmates would pay $25 a week to wear an electronic ankle bracelet that would warn county law enforcement authorities if the inmate stepped 150 feet away from a computer modem at home.

``I think it's the way of the future,' Toomes said. ``I don't know how much it costs to build a jail or jail cell, but it's a whole lot cheaper to do it this way.'


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