Cook County judges are violating the SAFE-T Act’s electronic monitoring reforms

Electronic monitoring equipment sitting on a table

Emily Hoerner / Injustice Watch

The ankle bracelet and receiver given to people on the Cook County Sheriff’s electronic monitoring program.

Every day, about 3,500 of our neighbors in Cook County are forced to live with a GPS monitor strapped to their ankle that tracks their every movement. They are forbidden by court order from stepping outside their home without permission. This kind of extreme surveillance and control is imposed by judges on people awaiting trial — who are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

After spiking at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of people on electronic monitoring has reverted to roughly pre-pandemic levels this year. But Cook County still has one of the largest populations of people on ankle monitors in any county or city in the United States.

“Dominic” lives on the Southwest Side and has been on an ankle monitor continuously since November 2021. (Dominic is identified here using a pseudonym because he fears retaliation and has been directed by his attorney not to publicly discuss anything relating to his pending criminal case.) He explained that house arrest prevented him from doing even the most basic things for himself, such as buying groceries or taking out the trash. All responsibilities outside the house fell on his son.

These kinds of restrictions turn a person’s house into an extension of the jail — except that the court system offloads all costs of incarceration onto the person and their family. People on ankle monitors often call it “e-carceration.” As Dominic explained to the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice, a coalition of organizations working to end pretrial incarceration, “People who haven’t had an experience with the law don’t understand how bad electronic monitoring is.”

In recognition of how extreme and inhumane this kind of electronic home confinement is, the Illinois Legislature enacted two major changes last year that were meant to make it less common and somewhat less oppressive. Unfortunately, judges and law enforcement are resisting both.

One important change that went into effect in January requires that anyone ordered to wear an ankle monitor must be allowed to leave their home at least two days per week to take care of basic life necessities, such as groceries, laundry, medical appointments, visits to the pharmacy, and religious services. Before the new law took effect, nearly all people on ankle monitors were forbidden from leaving confinement for any reason unless they had advance permission from a judge or the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, which would routinely ignore or deny requests. The law now mandates at least a bare minimum freedom of movement.

Another change requires judges to review whether an ankle monitor remains necessary every 60 days and establishes a stricter standard to order people to stay on an ankle monitor.

These changes were included in the SAFE-T Act, which has recently been the subject of mendacious propaganda and attacks. Like other parts of that law, the provisions about electronic monitoring make our criminal legal system fairer without compromising public safety. But these changes are nonetheless facing opposition from the judges and law enforcement agencies who should be enforcing them.

For example, despite the new requirement that judges should review electronic monitoring every 60 days, many people are languishing on ankle monitors for months or even years, even though they have complied fully with all their obligations. Moreover, at least one judge has reinterpreted the amended law in a way that guts the new, more stringent test for reimposing electronic monitoring.

In addition, numerous Cook County judges have issued orders that deny people the two-day-per-week “essential movement” that the law now requires. During the first four months that the law was in effect, there were at least 38 such orders, according to data from the sheriff’s office obtained by the MacArthur Justice Center through a records request. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart initially refused to follow these orders, which a spokesman acknowledged “appear to conflict with the requirements of the law,” but has since acquiesced to the judges.

The sheriff’s office, which supervises about 60% of the people on electronic monitoring in Cook County, has adopted an extremely narrow interpretation of the new essential movement requirement. It has instituted a default schedule allowing people movement outside the house two days per week. But, crucially, the sheriff’s office denies this essential movement to people if the judge has issued an order specifying that a person can go to work or attend school. This means that people on house arrest who have jobs or classes are still forbidden from taking care of other basic necessities out of the home, despite the change in the law.

As a result, the new essential movement provision didn’t change anything for Dominic. Because the judge had allowed him to leave his home to go to and from work, the sheriff’s office did not give him the two-day-per-week essential movement. He still could not go to the grocery store, laundromat, or pharmacy. He still could not take out the trash. He could only go straight to work and back. Any false move could land him back in jail.

Paradoxically, it was only when Dominic lost his job in January that his situation improved. He then got his essential movement. This small amount of freedom to leave his home was “life-changing,” he said.

“More than anything, it’s helped me mentally, just to be able to step out of my house and breathe or see some nature,” Dominic said. Essential movement has allowed Dominic to be more self-sufficient and productive. He can buy his groceries and can go to the library, where he can use the internet and apply for jobs.

“If someone doesn’t have support, essential movement allows them to do the things they need to do to stay healthy and survive,” Dominic said. “Not everyone can afford Amazon Prime or has a laundry machine in their house. Essential movement makes getting food and doing laundry possible. Without essential movement, you’re setting people up to fail.”

The benefits of these reforms have been almost completely obscured amid the heavily politicized debate over electronic monitoring that seeks to demonize people on ankle monitors. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown have sought to blame electronic monitoring — and the new essential movement requirement — for the recent uptick in certain crimes. The actual numbers prove them wrong. Less than 1% of the 3,500 people on ankle monitors are arrested on charges of violent crime. In a city as large as Chicago, this is a tiny number.

Even the language that is being used to describe the new protections for people on electronic monitoring is deeply misleading. Some news outlets have taken to calling essential movement a “furlough” — a provocative and misleading term that evokes the specter of Willie Horton. Essential movement is not a “furlough.” People on electronic monitoring are being tracked 24/7. Law enforcement knows exactly where they are at all times. The ankle monitors even have a built-in speaker and a microphone that allow sheriff’s deputies to issue verbal commands to a person on electronic monitoring and demand a response at any time of day or night. People on electronic monitoring are the most closely surveilled residents in Cook County.

Meanwhile, there is growing national recognition that electronic monitoring causes immense harm, imposes arbitrary and severe restrictions on people’s freedoms, and is not guided by good evidence. Two major national reports, one from three Illinois-based groups — the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, MediaJustice, and the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts — and another from the American Civil Liberties Union, underscore these harms and urge jurisdictions to eliminate their use of electronic monitoring in favor of more effective alternatives.

The changes to electronic monitoring enacted as part of the SAFE-T Act were an important first step in this direction. As the General Assembly starts its veto session this week in Springfield, legislators must not cave to fearmongering and pressure to roll back these successful reforms. But judges and the sheriff’s office should also stop standing in the way. We should continue reducing the number of people confined to their homes with a GPS strapped to their ankle. And if judges insist on imposing this kind of extreme surveillance and control, they must at least allow people to take care of the basic necessities of life for themselves and their families.

Jonathan Manes is an attorney at the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, focusing on surveillance, policing, and mass incarceration, and is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law.

Editor’s note: Injustice Watch board member Alexa Van Brunt is the director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s Illinois office. The board is not involved in editorial decision-making, and Van Brunt played no role in this commentary.