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For Chicago to solve its crime problem, electronic monitors have to work
We're never going to make our city's streets safer unless we agree on how to make the EM system function better for everyone.

Friday, July 24, 2020
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

Let's say you have a group of alleged criminals, people who have done something serious enough that police have arrested them and the state's attorney has charged them.

How many of them are you willing to let slip loose rather than keeping them behind bars, many on nonviolent or drug-related charges? Does that share change at a time when COVID-19 has paid a big call on Cook County Jail? Does it change back if you learned that an increasing slice of this group, more than half, have been charged with gun offenses, murder, aggravated battery and other crimes of violence?

Those are not theoretical questions. Here in Cook County and Chicago, which is going through another awful summer of street violence, such questions are at the core of whether our criminal justice system is doing what it's supposed to do.

I'm specifically talking about defendants who are released having to post little if any cash bail. Increasingly, these defendants are sent home with an electronic monitor around their ankle, a sort of jail outsourcing that's a tribute to the real success that reformers such as Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, State's Attorney Kim Foxx and others have had in properly asking whether the current system locks up too many young men of color for oftentimes minor offenses that ought to be handled differently.

Whether it's worked or not depends on which set of data you want to believe.

According to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who's responsible for enforcing the electronic monitoring system, masses of people released on EM are walking away from it, literally. His office reports that, of about 3,400 people in the program at one time, a good 800 or so were removed from April to early July this year. Of that amount, roughly 650, or 19 percent, fell out because they broke the rules and were reincarcerated, have been arrested on new charges, or just disappeared.

It used to not matter much because, when established, the program mostly involved low-level drug offenders, he says. But over the past three years, the number of EM defendants accused of violent offenses has soared, with the number facing charges of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon leaping from 194 to 500 and accused murderers moving from 18 to 35.

A wholly differing perspective comes from Paula Wolff, a longtime reform advocate who now is policy adviser for the Illinois Justice Project.

Dart's numbers are suspect, she says, having been derived amid a COVID pandemic that has abruptly changed everything, and even if they were accurate, they still indicate that more than five of six people in the EM program successfully "graduate." And that's after COVID, which the Centers for Disease Control recently said finally is under control at the Dart-run jail after some nasty numbers this spring. If Dart has problems with the EM system, he ought to change, Wolff adds.

Another set of data comes from Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans, whose court actually decides who gets out on an EM and what offense justifies reincarceration.

According to Evans' office, only about 9 percent of defendants fall out of the system now, and their alleged offenses are less violent than Dart suggests. But a nifty dashboard that Evans' office used to post detailing all of this month by month has not been updated in a year. The court is switching to a new tracking system, says Evans' spokesman, adding, "Until we have the opportunity to analyze (Dart's) data and review the time periods presented, we can't give a more meaningful response."

For anyone who'd like to pull out their hair at this point—I already gave at the office—I can report two good signs. One, Dart says those accused of murder are pretty good at sticking with the EM program, much to his surprise. Two, Wolff tells me Cook County relies on EM somewhat more than other areas of the country.That's a start. More, please. We're never going to solve Chicago's crime problem unless we agree on how to make the EM system work better.



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