Brownsville Federal Court Using Electronic Monitoring to Cut Costs

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BROWNSVILLE – Federal courts sentencing defendants are looking at ways to cut back.

The cost-saving measures were discussed during a hearing for a man who lied about a gun purchase.

CHANNEL 5 NEWS, in collaboration with the Brownsville Herald, explains where the federal court is trying to save.

It's not clear if the courts are making these cuts due to the partial government shutdown.

What is confirmed is that it started last Monday – that was five days before the federal judiciary's funds ran out, according to an order signed by Southern District of Texas Chief Judge Lee Rosenthal.

A man caught between the government and his family went before a federal judge last week, on Wednesday, Jan. 16.

Damian Vasquez, now convicted, lied about purchasing a rifle that was actually for his brother in law, according to his federal criminal complaint

That kind of crime comes with a penalty of up to five years in prison.

The government cut a deal with him. Vasquez agreed to wear a wire.

It helped incriminate his brother-in-law, according to statements made by Vasquez' attorney during his sentencing.

That got him a rare sentence, explains former public defender Paul Hajjar.

"After a person has been sentenced, there's a sentencing table that controls the court, and depending on their place on the sentencing table, they can be eligible for probated sentence which usually is rare in federal court," Hajjar said.

Vasquez received a sentence of one-year probation.

It's what came next that caught the attention of Mark Reagan with the Brownsville Herald.

He was sitting in the courtroom. CHANNEL 5 NEWS acquired the transcript of activity in court that day. 

The transcript shows the judge and probation officer discuss the terms.

The officer and judge agree to electronic monitoring, but the judge says they were asked to consider costs.

The judge said, "My understanding from an executive session on Monday is that to use the alternative to the electronic monitoring that's less expensive." 

They agree to radio frequency monitoring because it was the least expensive way to follow the probationer activities. That decision was "based upon the memo received from probation."

The more expensive monitoring consists of a GPS. It's recommended for those who pose a security risk to the community.

Radio frequency monitoring is more cost-effective and is used to confirm a person's location in home. It normally goes into an ankle bracelet.

Hajjar explains only low-risk defendants could qualify for electronic monitoring.

He points out due to our location close to the border, this trade off to save money could come at a high price.

"Probation office will call and will say that he has removed the ankle, how fast do you think they can stop them from crossing?" he says.

Electronic monitoring is also more cost effective than incarceration.

Every case is different, and for Vasquez with a family of four and a job to keep him grounded, the judge issued this decision for this defendant.

Between the Brownsville Herald and CHANNEL 5 NEWS, requests for comment were made to the Southern District of Texas, Probation and Pretrial Office, and Judge Olvera's office for comment – none have been granted.

Due to the shutdown, the federal judiciary continues to operate under the Anti-Deficiency Act, which says the federal courts can't spend money that hasn't yet been appropriated or approved by Congress but they must still work.


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