Tighter rules on electronic monitoring would put rights of the accused at risk

Legislators are considering two proposals that threaten the progress Illinois has made with the Pretrial Fairness Act, which put the state at the national forefront of pretrial reform.

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Electronic monitoring is an alternative to jail for crime suspects, but proposed changes to the system are unnecessary, a legal expert argues.

Electronic monitoring is an alternative to jail for crime suspects, but proposed changes to the system are unnecessary, a legal expert argues.

Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Supt. David Brown have made unfounded claims that people on house arrest with electronic monitoring present a danger to our city.  Though debunked by advocates and media, the widespread airing of this myth has misdirected the conversation surrounding pretrial release — so much so that Springfield legislators are considering bills that would further penalize people on electronic monitoring. 

One proposed bill would create a new felony charge for knowingly removing, tampering with or interfering with the signal of an electronic monitor. Another would prevent people facing certain charges involving allegations of violence from being eligible for release on monitoring. These unnecessary and even unconstitutional proposals threaten the progress Illinois has made since last year’s signing of the Pretrial Fairness Act, which put the state at the national forefront of pretrial reform. They also put the rights of thousands of legally innocent people at risk. 

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In Cook County, the sheriff’s office oversees a growing electronic monitoring program with more than 2,400 people  assigned to wear a shackle — all day, every day — without having been convicted of any crime. While on electronic monitoring, people are unable to leave their homes without permission from the sheriff, turning their residence into a jail cell. Authorities can even talk to and listen to people on electronic monitoring through the device. Delays in getting approved movement put people at risk of losing jobs and custodial arrangements. 

If a person on electronic monitoring is suspected of violating program rules — for instance, by going to the store for food without permission — GPS technology alerts the sheriff’s office. At that point, deputies can, and do, lock up the person without a hearing. This hasn’t changed with the passage of the Pretrial Fairness Act, which was supposed to expand the rights of people on electronic monitoring.

While someone must now be in violation for more than 48 hours before they can be charged, the sheriff’s office still retains the ability to immediately re-incarcerate people who are believed in violation of their conditions. People suspected of removing or damaging their monitors can also be charged with felonies. 

Just like the system of pretrial money bond, where people who cannot afford the bond stay locked up for months at a time, electronic monitoring is often not an alternative to pretrial incarceration but another feeder into the jail. And just like pretrial money bond, electronic monitoring perpetuates racial disparities. According to the sheriff’s data, as of Mar. 24, 2022, 71% of people on monitoring were Black, while only 23% of the county’s population is Black.

These harms are compounded by the fact that the GPS technology is undependable.  Cassie Follett, DePaul University’s Geographic Information Systems coordinator, recently explained to WTTW that the technology is not reliable enough for legal use. People on monitoring are regularly locked up because the monitors have malfunctioned. A lawsuit challenging the faulty system is pending against the sheriff in federal court. 

But despite its unreliability, the technology is expensive, costing county taxpayers about $20 million per year.

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Electronic monitoring serves no public safety interest. The majority of people being monitored do not present any flight risk and are facing non-violent charges. Most live successfully in the community, sometimes for years, while they await trial, despite the obstacles of being monitored 24/7. These success rates suggest many are being monitored who are in no need of supervision. Electronic monitoring may decrease public safety, since it enhances the risk of future re-arrest by making it more difficult for people to work, stay in school, and support their families. 

Given the unreliability of electronic monitoring technology, the harms it imposes, and the fact that people who allegedly violate their monitoring conditions already receive punishment by the court system (often unfairly), it is irresponsible for the Legislature to take up bills that would increase penalties for people being surveilled, without any proven public benefit. 

At a time when Illinois is taking laudable measures to address our system of mass incarceration, lawmakers’ embrace of punitive surveillance measures is an unwelcome blast from the carceral past. We should work to uphold the promise of the Pretrial Fairness Act — cutting back on electronic monitoring, rejecting penalty enhancements and cementing Illinois’ status as a national beacon against unjust pretrial detention.

Alexa Van Brunt is the director of the Illinois Office of the MacArthur Justice Center and a clinical professor at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. 

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