The Cook County Department of Corrections in the Little Village neighborhood on April 11, 2020. The Cook County Jail has ranked as the top hot spot for coronavirus in the United States. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

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COOK COUNTY — Changes could be coming to Cook County’s controversial home surveillance programs designed to pigeonhole pre-trial defendants who have been released from jail.

The county has enlisted a “consortium” of consultants and advocacy groups to “evaluate the effectiveness” of the two separate pre-trial monitoring programs, county board President Toni Preckwinkle told reporters last week. The outside probe is working to issue a series of “recommendations” for reforms — potentially including turning over one or both programs to the state, officials said. 

Preckwinkle’s chief of staff Lanetta Haynes Turner said the county’s Justice Advisory Council has convened a group of “subject matter experts,” including the public sector consulting firm CGL and the Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, who have “made some preliminary recommendations” that “are now being vetted” by various county offices. 

The county’s Justice Advisory Council launched the review last year.

“We should know more in the next six months or so how we are going to realign both of the electronic monitoring programs at the county level to provide more effective outcomes,” Turner said.

Her comments came one day after the Appleseed Center joined the Chicago Council of Lawyers to excoriate the electronic monitoring program run by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, saying it has grown too punitive and unwieldy.

The groups’ 18-page report released this week, titled “10 Facts About Pretrial Monitoring in Cook County,” blasts the home surveillance program, charging among other things that it “perpetuates racial disparities,” “destabilizes communities” and carries “no real benefit to the public.”

Sarah Staudt, a senior policy analyst with the Appleseed Center and lead author of the report, told The Daily Line on Friday that the legal advocacy organization decided to publish the findings to “give people a first glance of what is going with this [electronic monitoring] program” while the internal review churns along behind the scenes.

“Electronic monitoring is an area that’s of interest to us personally…because communities tell us that it is an unnecessarily oppressive and excessive program,” Staudt said. “We’re putting large amounts of money into a growing program that doesn’t seem to have a high level of effectiveness, and it’s something we should be thinking about as a county.”

The organizations counted 3,051 defendants who were or on the sheriff’s electronic monitoring program as of last week, about 26 percent more than were confined under the program just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year.

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ office operates a separate Home Confinement Unit under its Pretrial Services division, but there is “no public information available about the number of people that the Pretrial Service’s Division’s electronic monitoring program monitors, how restricted their movements are, what they are charged with, how placement is decided, or any other basic information,” according to the report.

“This complete lack of transparency makes it impossible to analyze that program in any detail,” the report continues.

A spokesperson for Evans’ office declined to comment on the publication, saying leaders of the office “just received the report and are reviewing it.”

Because of the growing number of defendants on electronic monitoring, “Cook County can no longer accurately claim that its population of people incarcerated pretrial is shrinking,” the Appleseed Center report reads. “This reversal of a years-long trend towards decarceration should concern everyone in the County.”

Authors of the report added that defendants on electronic monitoring are being held in confinement “longer than ever,” with 1,150 having been in the system for more than a year — about a 32 percent increase over last year’s number. They called on leaders of the county court system to immediately begin each person’s “electronic monitoring status” every 90 days, getting a head start on a state requirement that is set to take effect in January.

They noted that nearly three-quarters of the population on electronic monitoring is Black, saying the program therefore “perpetuates racial disparities.”

A spokesperson for Dart’s office wrote in a statement that the report “mirrors many of the complaints the Sheriff’s Office has had for years about how the program is used.”

Dart has long publicly complained that the electronic monitoring program has gotten out of hand. In 2019, he wrote a letter to Evans asking for the Chief Judge’s office to absorb into his Pretrial Services division the 2,000-plus defendants who are on electronic monitoring under Dart’s supervision. Evans bristled at that idea, saying it would face too many logistical hurdles.

Related: Evans finds ‘problems’ in Dart’s call to merge electronic monitoring divisions

“The population on [electronic monitoring] has grown significantly and it is not a solution for the very real public safety and criminal justice issues we face in Chicago,” Sheriff’s office spokesperson Matthew Walberg wrote in Thursday’s statement. He also noted that judges — not the Sheriff’s office — determine who is assigned to electronic monitoring, and for how long. 

Court officials are now open to consolidating at least one of the two home confinement programs by turning them over to a state agency. Turner said Thursday that the Illinois Supreme Court is “strongly considering taking the Pretrial Services Division out of local jurisdictions and running a statewide program.” 

“There is a question there about whether or not electronic monitoring would be folded into that process,” Turner said.

Dart has repeatedly said he believes judges are assigning too many defendants electronic monitoring. He argued in a 2019 budget hearing that people released on home surveillance lack access to the kinds of rehabilitative programs available to detainees at the jail.

Related: Dart shuffles Sheriff’s Office to focus on electronic monitoring

He was fiercely echoed this summer by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Department Supt. David Brown, who have repeatedly claimed without evidence that people released on electronic monitoring are a driving force behind the city’s spike in gun violence this year.

Related: Aldermen pounce as Brown, Lightfoot stand by ‘false narrative’ linking courts to shootings 

“The truth is more than 75% of those on electronic monitoring are facing violent charges, including 96 charged with murder, 131 charged with sexual assault, and 254 charged with armed habitual criminal,” Walberg wrote in his statement. “The Sheriff’s Office does its best to operate an [electronic monitoring] program that enforces court orders aimed at preventing new crimes and ensuring defendants don’t flee their criminal charges, while not being unduly restrictive.”

In their report, advocates from the Appleseed Center and Chicago Council of Lawyers agree too many defendants are kept on the home surveillance program. But they offer a different solution: set them free.

Their report says pretrial home surveillance is “overused,” with 43 percent confined to home on charges of illegal gun possession that “does not involve firing, brandishing, or even necessarily touching or holding a gun.”

“Gun possession without a license is a misdemeanor in most states, or no license is required at all,” the report reads. “In Illinois, it is a felony that carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence.”

They also called the program “flawed and punitive,” saying that 546 people so far in 2021 have been reincarcerated due to “technical violations” like removing their ankle bracelet to flee the program. The number represents a more than four-fold increase from 2019, when 123 people were sent back to jail for violating rules related to electronic monitoring.  

Still, between 2016 and 2020, more than 91 percent of people on electronic monitoring were not re-arrested while under the restrictions.

“These are people who have not been convicted of a crime, just accused of a crime, and it is not acceptable for us to be trying to restrain their liberty out of some sense that we are quote-unquote providing them better services in a jail context,” Staudt said. “We know that what helps people be successful are things that promote self-efficacy, like getting an education, having a job or taking care of your family.”

“Because electronic monitoring is so restrictive, it disrupts people’s abilities to do those things,” she added. 

Walberg’s statement countered that “Allegations in this report that the Sheriff’s [electronic monitoring] program routinely is excessively and unnecessarily punitive are simply baseless.”