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Electronic monitoring spikes in Cook County

Monday, February 23, 2015
Chicago Tribune
by Cynthia Dizikes

Cook County judges ordered record numbers of criminal defendants onto electronic home monitoring last year — a 70 percent increase that has eased overcrowding in the jail but has also created new concerns for the sheriff's office, which must watch over those released. Worried that some may flee before their trials or commit crimes, Sheriff Tom Dart started a program in 2013 to intensely monitor a select group of "high priority" defendants. Most of those in the program have been accused of child sex abuse, child pornography and attempted murder. The little-known program, which requires deputies to make three daily unannounced visits to defendants' homes, has sparked accusations from at least one defendant that the sheriff's office has harassed him, even though he has not been convicted of a crime. (Tribune Graphics) Cara Smith, the jail's executive director, said the high priority program is necessary to adequately monitor defendants who may be more dangerous. "This population of high-risk defendants gives us a tremendous amount of anxiety," Smith said. "We put enormous resources into running it. We don't have a crystal ball and these programs aren't perfect. In this business, things will go wrong. That's just the nature of the beast." Electronic monitoring has been used for years to relieve overcrowding at the jail. But it also has posed problems for judges and politicians worried about releasing the wrong defendant who goes on to commit a headline-grabbing crime. Judges last year ordered 14,717 men and women awaiting trial onto electronic home monitoring as a condition of their release from custody, compared with 8,657 in 2013, according to figures provided by the sheriff's office. The office did not begin keeping detailed figures on defendants who had received electronic monitoring in court until 2012, but Smith said the office has never had this many people on electronic monitoring. Meanwhile, according to the sheriff's office, the number of inmates housed at the jail fell from 10,388 on Feb.16, 2013, to 8,427 as of Monday. The increase in electronic monitoring orders follows a dispute between Dart, who has pushed to have more nonviolent defendants released from jail, and Chief Judge Timothy Evans over whether the sheriff or judges are responsible for assigning defendants to the monitoring program. Dart, who at any given time is responsible for some 1,700 defendants on electronic monitoring, has argued that judges know better than his deputies if a defendant might be dangerous or flee. Evans has said a long-standing federal court order directs the sheriff to decide who gets released to control the jail's population. Chicago crime tricky issue as Rahm Emanuel seeks re-election The dispute came to a head in 2013 when the sheriff accused judges of drastically reducing electronic monitoring orders. Evans at the time said the sheriff was not releasing all the defendants judges had ordered onto electronic monitoring. Smith said she did not know why judges were now ordering more defendants onto the sheriff's monitoring program, and Evans did not respond to requests for comment. Defendants on electronic monitoring in Cook County must wear an ankle or wrist bracelet, which operates on radio frequency and sends signals to a cellular receiver plugged into an electrical outlet in the home. If a defendant attempts to cut the bracelet or steps out of the home, an alert is sent to a third party vendor, who then notifies the sheriff's office. The system is not GPS-based, however, so it cannot track a person's movements. Judges who set monetary bond in order to assure a defendant will show up for court can add electronic monitoring as a condition of bond, allowing for additional supervision. cComments They forgot to mention that most of the ones we release on electronic monitoring don't make 8 hours before violating it and returning to the jail. Every day large groups that were released on electronic monitoring get reincarcerated. Besides minor criminal charges inmates are being released...  The sheriff's office, however, does not release everyone ordered onto electronic monitoring. Many defendants remain in jail because they are homeless or cannot raise the monetary bond required for their release. The sheriff's electronic monitoring program, which is run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, allows for defendants to be released back into the community with supervision, while also allowing them to work and to support their families. Many defendants are on electronic monitoring for about 30 days, but others, who are often facing more serious charges, remain in the program for years until their cases conclude. Defendants on the sheriff's electronic monitoring program also receive credit for time served if they are ultimately convicted. While many of those on electronic monitoring are awaiting trial for nonviolent crimes, sheriff's officials said judges are now assigning the program to potentially more dangerous defendants who can post bail. CTA: Serious crimes down 26 percent Sheriff's officials said that has shifted responsibility onto them if something goes wrong while the defendant is released. "I think the courts are putting an extra level of supervision on these people and in doing so, it places additional responsibility on us," Smith said. Defense lawyers said the extra layer of supervision is unnecessary and can border on harassment. Tania Dimitrova, a lawyer, said it should be enough for a defendant to post a cash bond to be released before trial. Dimitrova represents an accused child sex abuser who posted $8,000 bail and is on the sheriff's high priority watch list. "His liberty is definitely restricted," Dimitrova said. "We thought posting cash alone was sufficient. The judge did not agree." Of the 33 defendants on high priority home monitoring as of last month, at least 30 also had posted cash bail. They include a city teacher, a pastor, a volunteer with the Salvation Army and former suburban deputy fire chief, Gary Swiercz. Swiercz's release prompted Dart in February 2013 to create the high priority electronic monitoring program. Weeks earlier, Swiercz broke into a neighbor's condominium in south suburban Tinley Park, prosecutors said in court. They said Swiercz — dressed in dark clothing, gloves and a ski mask — pulled out a knife and threatened to cut the woman's throat. Prosecutors said in court that after the woman screamed for help, Swiercz slammed her head three times onto the floor and ran from her home. Prosecutors said police found Swiercz's clothing, including a jacket and ski mask, in a nearby dumpster. They also found a nylon rope, medical gloves, duct tape, a rubber dildo, a bottle of lubricant and a flashlight inside the jacket, according to court records. Swiercz, 52, was charged with attempted murder, home invasion and several other crimes. The former suburban deputy fire chief and Army veteran had never been convicted of a crime, according to court records, and was considered a low-risk defendant if he were released. Prosecutors argued, however, that he was a threat to the community and should be held without bail. A judge set Swiercz's bond at $150,000 and added that Swiercz be placed on electronic monitoring if he made bail. Swiercz came under the sheriff's watch after posting the necessary 10 percent cash, or $15,000.  Swiercz's neighbors were upset about his returning to the community, and complained to the sheriff's office, said Greg Shields, director of the sheriff's electronic home monitoring unit. The sheriff then decided to create a select category of defendants who would be given special scrutiny. Shields determines which defendants, like Swiercz, receive more attention. Shields said he and his team take into account the "entire narrative" of the crime and charges, and review court records. Unlike those on regular electronic monitoring, those considered high priority receive three unannounced face-to-face visits from armed deputies every day. A total of 96 defendants have been in the program as of Feb. 11. They forgot to mention that most of the ones we release on electronic monitoring don't make 8 hours before violating it and returning to the jail. Every day large groups that were released on electronic monitoring get reincarcerated. Besides minor criminal charges inmates are being released...  The heightened scrutiny led to accusations from Swiercz that the sheriff used the program to harass him. Swiercz ultimately moved into the home of his elderly parents. Swiercz argued in a court filing in April 2013 that his mother's heart condition had deteriorated since sheriff's deputies "come to their home at all hours of the night, banging on the door and repeatedly ringing the door bell." Swiercz also argued that deputies told him he "is being harassed by their Office" and that no one else on electronic monitoring is being watched so closely. Shields said Swiercz had not been harassed and that electronic monitoring is designed to extend some of the same restrictions of a jail cell. "We have a right to come in there three times a day, seven days a week," he said. A judge denied Swiercz's request for an order prohibiting the sheriff's office from "harassing him." Swiercz, who is awaiting trial, told the Tribune he is not a risk to flee nor is he a danger to anyone. He said he has since become used to the nighttime visits though they are still disruptive for his parents.  "They come after midnight," he said. "I do my best to try and listen for them. I just accept these visits as a condition of my release. It sure beats being in jail."


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