Srivastava: Electronic monitoring isn’t positive prison reform for Cook County

Heena Srivastava, Op-Ed Contributor

On Feb. 22, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart issued a letter to Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle claiming that the recent increase in electronic monitoring programming for local defendants awaiting trial poses a threat to public safety. The program, he said, has caused a “dramatic increase in violent offenders” to be released from jail without adequate safety precautions. As a result of his public safety concern, Dart plans to more heavily police neighborhoods of defendants, conduct unannounced searches of defendant homes and strengthen the vetting process.

The electronic monitoring program took flight alongside a series of bond reforms issued last year, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, partially replacing money bonds for defendants. These defendants have been arrested, but not yet convicted — and are therefore innocent until proven guilty. In a system with money bonds, defendants can post a sum of money in order to be released from prison until trial, but this disadvantages the poor: Those who cannot post bond are stuck within the system until trial. Because they don’t have the resources, low-income people are often put behind bars before even being proven guilty.

Electronic monitoring aimed to fix that. Instead of posting bond to be released, defendants could be electronically monitored in the comfort of their own homes. The court can instill curfews and keep tabs on a defendant’s location.

The Cook County Department of Corrections created an alternative to money bonds and decreased incarceration rates. The percentage of gun defendants who received cash bonds dropped from 96 percent in 2016 to 40 percent in 2017. The number of defendants facing gun charges and receiving electronic monitoring rose from 2 percent to 22 percent according to Dart’s letter, resulting in less people being placed in jail.

But while opportunities for release were created for the poor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor and director of Challenging E-Carceration James Kilgore claimed electronic monitoring is “not an alternative to incarceration — it’s an alternative form of incarceration. It deprives people of their liberty the same as jail does.”

A report by the Chicago Community Bond Fund addresses cases in which electronic monitoring has unfairly hurt defendants. A 21-year-old defendant was released after posting bond, but was not made aware of his curfew. After violating a curfew he was oblivious to, he was put on electronic monitoring for four months, during which he lost both of his jobs. Another defendant, according to the report was unable to access the necessary medical services for his drug addiction because he was put under electronic monitoring with no opportunity for movement.

Electronic monitoring may spare low-income defendants from court fees, but can decrease their quality of life in other ways. Due to suffering in their jobs, personal health and family lives, defendants can be more likely to recidivate back into the system.

Moreover, electronic monitoring is, in theory, intended for nonviolent offenders in order to limit the effect of overcrowding and still maintain public safety. To begin revising the electronic monitoring system and address Sheriff Dart’s concerns, electronic monitoring should not be used for violent offenders too as it currently is. To appropriately separate violent and nonviolent offenders, however, judges must understand defendants charged for gun possession are not always violent offenders.

Lastly, pre-trial services must better communicate what debts and curfews exist to defendants — whether under electronic monitoring, parole or incarcerated. Without knowledge of the strict rules they must follow, defendants inevitably break them and, ultimately, remain unjustly involved in the system.

While Dart is correct in wanting electronic monitoring reform, the program must be cut back rather than reinforced with over-policing. Funds would be better used if directed toward prisoner rehabilitation rather than further regulation.

Cook County’s poor communication to the general public further heightens this issue. Pre-trial services and the courts fail to release court records and crime data to criminal justice organizations such as the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice and the Chicago Council of Lawyers, although it is public data. Without this information, not do defendants remain ignorant, but those who serve victims are helpless. Cook County needs transparency: Only then can citizens begin to fight for defendant rights.

Heena Srivastava is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.