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Dart warns of 'dramatic increase' in accused gun offenders released on electronic monitors

Friday, February 23, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Megan Crepeau

Sheriff Tom Dart says hundreds more accused gun offenders have been released from Cook County Jail on electronic bracelets in recent months as a result of attempts at bond reform, raising public safety concerns. Dart said Thursday the dramatic increase has overwhelmed the office’s electronic monitoring program, leading him to take immediate steps to shore up those efforts: shifting staff, making unannounced searches of the homes of those being monitored, conducting a more thorough vetting process and, if necessary, declaring detainees too risky for the bracelets altogether. The startling acknowledgment by Dart came in a letter he sent Thursday to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. “… Out of concern for the public safety that I am sworn to safeguard, I have determined that I am neither satisfied nor convinced that the E.M. program, in its current form, offers adequate protections given this recent dramatic increase in violent offenders,” the sheriff wrote. Dart said he was immediately “leveraging existing staff and deploying them” to the community corrections division that oversees the electronic monitoring effort, even though that move “is all the more difficult given budget reductions.” “Moving forward, my office will closely scrutinize all individuals who are assigned to E.M. by carefully reviewing their charges and criminal histories, a process that may take up to 48 hours,” Dart wrote. “Those who are deemed to be too high a security risk to be in the community will be referred back to the court for further evaluation.” Preckwinkle’s spokesman, Frank Shuftan, said in a statement that the county president’s office hadn’t yet reviewed Dart’s letter or the underlying data. “In working with all public safety stakeholders, President Preckwinkle has focused on the unnecessary detention of individuals who are charged with nonviolent crimes, who are not a risk to public safety and who are not a flight risk,” the statement emphasized. Dart, along with Preckwinkle and other elected county officials, has been a vocal opponent of the cash-bond system in which judges require defendants to put down money to secure their release from jail while awaiting trial. Critics say the system unfairly punishes the poor and that defendants charged with violent offenses who sometimes have easy access to cash because of gang ties can be back out on the street within days. In July, as part of the reform push, Chief Judge Timothy Evans announced that judges would be required to set bail only in amounts that defendants could afford to pay in an effort to ensure that people charged with nonviolent crimes weren’t languishing in jail simply because they didn’t have the cash, sometimes only a few hundred dollars, to post for bond. Judges have treated felony gun charges in a dramatically different way since the reforms were implemented, according to data from the sheriff's office. Over a nearly four-month period in 2016, judges gave out cash-based bonds in nearly 96 percent of felony gun cases and released just 2 percent on electronic monitors. In the 10 weeks after the bond order took effect in September, though, the number of cash-based bonds for gun cases plummeted to about 40 percent, while those freed on the electronic bracelets jumped to 22 percent. The amount set for bonds also sharply fell on average, from nearly $134,000 in 2016 to almost $22,000 in 2017, according to the analysis. By contrast, judges also boosted how often they ordered no bond for those charged with felony gun offenses, to more than 9 percent in 2017, compared with no cases at all in 2016, the analysis showed. Pat Milhizer, a spokesman for the chief judge’s office, noted in a statement that defendants on electronic monitoring are awaiting trial and presumed innocent and that judges do not release those deemed to pose a threat to safety. The sheriff’s office may seek funding from the county for up to 30 extra positions to beef up the division overseeing the monitoring program, said Cara Smith, Dart’s chief policy officer. In addition, the office will more thoroughly review where those released on monitoring plan to stay out of concern that many return to violence-plagued neighborhoods on the South and West sides. Smith said electronic monitoring was never intended for high-risk defendants in the first place. Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has long complained that too many repeat gun offenders remain on the streets — a theme he highlighted last week after Cmdr. Paul Bauer was fatally shot in the Loop, allegedly by a four-time felon. As commander of the Near North District, Bauer had recently spoken out about his frustration over the bond reform effort and the difficulty in keeping repeat offenders off the streets. “We’re not talking about the guy who stole a loaf of bread from the store to feed his family,” Bauer said in November, according to the Loop North News. “We’re talking about career robbers, burglars, drug dealers. These are all crimes against the community. They need to be off the street.”

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