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Electronic monitoring battle a costly one
Dart and Evans at odds over decisions on defendants

Friday, August 22, 2008

by Hal Dardick

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has severely cut the number of criminal defendants released on electronic home monitoring, boosting the population at the crowded jail and costing the county millions in expenses.

Dart said he's keeping more than 1,000 extra defendants in jail each day to protect public safety because he thinks Cook County judges—rather than his staff—should decide which inmates go home. But critics say Dart is dodging his responsibility to make such decisions under an ongoing federal court order aimed at eliminating jail overcrowding.

Dart, who began reducing home monitoring in 2006 as chief of staff under the previous sheriff, has escalated the practice since being elected to the post later that year. He is sparring with Chief Circuit Judge Timothy Evans about which of them decides who gets placed in the monitoring program.

"For me, blindly, to be letting people out, is not right," Dart said recently, contending judges are in a better position to determine whether defendants could harm someone, or flee prosecution, when placed on a monitor.

Dart has reduced the number of offenses a defendant can face and still be considered for monitoring, and he only releases those still eligible when the jail nears its maximum population of nearly 10,000.

The average daily number of defendants on monitors once topped 1,500. That dropped to 406 during the first six months of this year, according to a recent report by a federal court monitor, and sheriff's data shows it has dropped below 300 in recent weeks.

To jail someone for a day costs more than $100, compared to $35.24 a day to place them on a monitor, sheriff's data show. If 1,000 a day more were on the monitors for a full year, the savings would top $23 million.

The monitors are used in many jurisdictions around
Illinois
and across the country, both before trial and after conviction, to lower jail costs and foster rehabilitation. Judges typically decide who is placed in such programs.

CookCounty
began using monitors in 1988 to track lower-risk defendants released to control jail crowding under a longstanding consent decree in a federal class-action lawsuit known as Duran.

Evans said Dart is bound by Duran to decide which defendants get taken home with electronic bracelets strapped to their ankle. "As long as the Duran decree is still the law . . . the sheriff has to do what the sheriff has to do under that decree," he said.

Evans said he hopes to create "a model pretrial system that has never been in place anywhere in the country." The advice of behavioral experts would be given to judges, and made available to the sheriff's staff, to make decisions about bail and monitoring, he said.

Locke Bowman, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys in Duran, said that if Dart would release as many pre-trial detainees as his predecessors, jail overcrowding might end for the first time in more than a quarter of a century.

"I just don't understand why the minute we are in striking distance of the decree, we can't do electronic monitoring as we have in the past," Bowman said. He conceded that "in a perfect world" judges would decide who is released.

In its report last week the
John Howard Association, the federal monitor in Duran, concluded the jail remains overcrowded, though at far lower numbers than in previous years. The report, which documented the decreasing number of defendants on home monitoring, also addressed the battle between Dart and Evans.

"As criminal justice professionals, staff of the John Howard Association sides with the sheriff," agreeing the courts should decide who is released on electronic monitoring. But the association's report also takes note of the Duran order directing the sheriff to use "release mechanisms . . . for the purpose of reducing overcrowding."

Dart points to language in a modification to the Duran decree. It states, in part, that judges had "the primary and direct responsibility" for releasing pre-trial detainees.

But other language in the modification ultimately led to sheriff's personnel deciding who went home on electronic monitoring when the program was launched.

"I think they really were expecting the judiciary to step up to the plate and do something," Dart said. "They didn't expect them to put their heads in the sand for 20 years."

Failing Evans' agreement to take over the decisions, Dart has asked the court to vacate the 25-year-old order so a new case can be filed that includes the
CookCounty judiciary.



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