(To read the original publication of this op-ed click here.)
Up until this year, people on the main electronic monitoring program in Cook County were often unable to feed themselves or access medications because they were under 24/7 home confinement. Landmark reforms implemented on Jan. 1 righted this wrong, allowing people limited movement for essential tasks, while still wearing an ankle monitor with a GPS tracking device.
These are all people who are presumed innocent and awaiting trial.
We must not undo reforms and return to the harmful previous system based on outlier cases of people rearrested this year — just 1% out of thousands of people on electronic monitoring. Calls to reverse the reforms are also based on an assumption that the law weakened the ability to actively monitor people while outside their homes, which is not the case.
Cook County has one of the country’s largest and most restrictive pretrial electronic monitoring programs.
The Pretrial Fairness Act, a central component of the criminal and racial justice reforms in Illinois’ February 2021 SAFE-T Act, includes changes to electronic monitoring. One change, often referred to as “essential movement,” allows monitored people two periods per week to take care of essential activities such as grocery, medical appointments and taking care of their families.
Before this change went into effect, basic tasks like these were not among the explicitly authorized reasons for people on electronic monitoring to leave their homes. Some judges did not routinely grant movement for activities such as doctor visits or job training, and requests for movement were frequently denied. The creation of essential movement addressed these problems.
The Chicago Sun-Times recent editorial on electronic monitoring states that people on essential movement are not being watched. If this is the case, it is not due to the reforms to electronic monitoring. The Pretrial Fairness Act does not require the watchful eye of the authorities to be removed.
While in their homes, at work, at school or on essential movement, people wearing ankle monitors are tracked by GPS at all times. In fact, as Sun-Times reporter Frank Main’s story noted, the GPS data collected while people are on essential movement can be and is used to identify and prosecute people.
The Cook County Sheriff’s Office data on its program shows that the overwhelming majority of people on electronic monitoring, 99%, have not been accused of doing anything wrong while on essential movement.
This is an encouraging success rate that we should celebrate.
As we are having these discussions, it is important to remember that people on pretrial electronic monitoring have not been found guilty of what they are accused of. Many have been falsely accused; some will have their cases dismissed because of lack of evidence; others will be found not guilty by a judge or jury; still others will be sentenced to probation or some other non-prison punishment.
Most accused people in Cook County return to our neighborhoods at the end of their cases. Allowing people to attend to their basic human needs while accused of an offense should not be a radical idea in a developed society.
The Sun-Times argues that electronic monitoring is not appropriate for people accused of violent crimes or first-degree murder. This implies that electronic monitoring is routinely granted to people accused of murder, that all murder cases are the same and that everyone accused of murder poses a risk of danger while awaiting trial.
However, pretrial release for people accused of murder in Cook County is an exception, granted in only 3% of current pending murder cases. Judges allow pretrial release due to specific circumstances, such as a weak case or when the accused person was not the principal actor in the allegation or when they may have a strong case of self-defense. Judges should have discretion in such cases and in fact it would not be constitutional to remove that discretion.
We need rational and effective criminal justice policy-making based on facts. Denying thousands of people access to essential movement because of a few anecdotes is bad policy.
Sharone R. Mitchell Jr. is the Cook County Public Defender