Get rid of ‘essential movement’ in electronic monitoring for suspects in violent crimes

Curbing the observation of arrestees who are in a program that is all about monitoring them is irrational and dangerous.

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Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart speaks at news conference in 2021.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart speaks at press conference in 2021. Dart wants to eliminate the “essential movement” part of the SAFE-T Act, at least for those on electronic monitoring who have been charged with violent crimes.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

When criminal suspects in Cook County are placed on electronic monitoring, the sheriff’s office is tasked with tracking the defendants’ movements while they await trial.

Using GPS and cell tower technology, sheriff’s office personnel can determine when those in the program stray too far from home when they are supposed to be inside. The ankle bracelets also work as a two-way communication device, so the sheriff’s office and suspect can be in constant communication.

Electronic monitoring thus reduces the population at Cook County Jail while allowing the sheriff’s office to keep tabs on defendants while they’re out on bail.

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Both of which make sense — until the practice goes too far, and we believe it has.

Under a provision in the state’s sweeping criminal justice reform bill, the SAFE-T Act, defendants on electronic monitoring are granted two days each week to move freely for 8-hour periods without the watchful eye of the authorities.

On those days, suspects are supposed to be engaged in something productive — looking for a job, undergoing treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, shopping for groceries. But since Jan. 1, when the SAFE-T Act took effect, two dozen criminal suspects in Cook County have, instead, gotten into more trouble on the days they were not being monitored, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Frank Main reports.

The numbers are a sign that the practice of granting “essential days,” especially for those charged with violent crimes, should end, as Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart proposes.

One defendant allegedly committed an armed robbery while not being monitored. Other suspects were accused of drug-dealing, weapons violations and shoplifting.

These “essential movement” violators are, so far at least, only 1% of the population of those on home confinement. Dart makes an important point when he notes that, since most shootings and violent crimes go unsolved, there’s no way to know whether or not the percentage is higher.

It strikes us as irrational and dangerous to curb the observation of defendants who are in a program that is supposed to monitor their whereabouts. Not only is the community potentially put in harm’s way, but the lives of those defendants are also at risk: Two suspects were shot to death and one man died of a drug overdose during their “essential movement” time.

The use of electronic monitoring has increased in the last few years, in part due to efforts to keep down the jail population during the pandemic. There has also been a push to keep indigent suspects accused of low-level offenses from being locked up simply because they can’t afford cash bond, a concept we support. Cash bail will end in Illinois in 2023, under the SAFE-T reforms.

As more suspects end up on electronic monitoring, it is essential that they be — well, monitored. There’s no good reason why defendants granted electronic monitoring should be given days to “roam freely” without being watched.

In the past, we’ve noted that supporters of criminal justice reform risk losing ground when violent offenders, particularly those accused of murder, are put on electronic monitoring.

Public opinion will similarly sour if suspects aren’t closely monitored and so end up accused of committing more crimes.

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Republicans have repeatedly attacked and called for a repeal of the expansive 800-page SAFE-T Act. That’s an overreach. Criminal justice reform should not be scrapped entirely.

Dart’s request, however, makes sense. Suspects already accused of serious offenses should not have an opportunity to go to restricted locations, acquire guns, confront witnesses involved in their pending cases or tamper with their bracelets.

Sharone Mitchell, Cook County’s public defender, says communities are safer when those on electronic monitoring can “take care of essential life activities.”

But being allowed to roam freely sounds more to us like convenience for a defendant, not greater safety for the community.

Even before the “essential movement” practice was implemented, judges often signed orders allowing suspects to go to school or work when on home confinement. Defendants on electronic monitoring can still seek a court order if they need to leave their home to attend a funeral, be at religious services, vote, go to the doctor or engage in other activities.

“Essential movement” should not be automatic.

What is essential is that those shown to potentially pose a threat are watched.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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