Illinois House committee moves to restrict use of electronic monitoring

(*This article has been updated.)

An Illinois House committee voted 12-7 late Tuesday to restrict the use of electronic monitoring for people who have already completed their prison sentence and are on mandatory supervised release, effectively ending the discretionary power of Illinois’ adult correctional system to place people in an electronic monitoring program unless ordered by law or by court order.

The Illinois House Judiciary-Criminal Committee passed The Mandatory Supervised Release Reentry Freedom Act, which mandates that with few exceptions, “electronic monitoring may not be used for persons on mandatory supervised release or parole.”

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The passing of this bill in committee means change might be coming soon for the 2,500 people that Challenging E-Carceration, an Urbana research project, says are currently held on electronic monitoring by the IDOC. The bill would not affect those on one to complete their sentence or those required by law to be on an electronic monitor after serving their sentence.

It is likely not to be the final say, even in the committee. Some lawmakers wanted revisions after hearing objections from both an IDOC official and the chair of the Prisoner Review Board.  The bill won passage after State Rep. Carol Ammons (D-Urbana), the chief sponsor, promised to present an amendment to the language to satisfy some concerns that arose at the hearing.

Ammons, who has been working with advocates for more than a year on this bill, said the bill will help “break the vicious cycle of incarceration.” Advocates say the passage of the bill puts Illinois at the forefront of states working to better understand and reform the use of electronic monitoring.

“We’re pretty sure we had the first subject matter hearing on electronic monitoring in the nation. This is sort of one of the first legislative conversations we think are being had,” says Sarah Staudt, senior policy analyst and staff attorney for Chicago Appleseed and member of the Illinois Coalition to Challenge Electronic Monitoring.

Ammons said that Jason Garnett, chief of the Parole Division for IDOC, and Craig Findley, chairman of the Prisoner Review Board, had not raised the issue of alternative solutions until the hearing Tuesday, as the deadline approached for getting a bill out of committee.

After hearing Garnett and Findley testify, Republican lawmakers Rep. Terri Bryant (R- Jefferson) and Rep. Lindsay Parkhurst (R- Kankakee), cited IDOC’s willingness to work with lawmakers on an alternative administrative solution as part of their reason for not supporting the bill.

Although corrections department representatives attended the hearing, Appleseed’s Staudt said the IDOC could not produce hard evidence to defend the scope of electronic monitoring or “counter some of the horror stories” from people who have had negative experiences on a monitor.

The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority also found no definitive proof that electronic monitoring reduces the chances a person will re-offend, according to Challenging E-Carceration, which includes the Center for Media Justice and the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center.

“There’s no evidence that it reduces recidivism and makes rehabilitation easier,” said  Ammons (D-Urbana). In fact, Ammons says evidence has shown that being placed on a monitor after serving time can make integrating back into society more difficult.

Among those difficulties: The expansion of electronic monitoring lessened the direct interaction between parole officers and offenders by adding a third-party, GEO Group, in the mix. Electronic monitoring with a third-party has also made it harder for returning citizens to receive “movement” or permission to travel to job interviews, family gatherings, and other events.

The state spends upwards of $6 million a year on electronic monitoring for people who have completed their prison sentences.

In addition to the cost, Ammons believes the “victims of EM” being placed on a monitor after serving prison time are suffering from a requirement she sees as “unconstitutional.”

Coalition member Chris Harrison gave a first-hand account as he testified Wednesday as a returning citizen previously placed on a monitor. “Electronic monitoring does not serve the purpose that a large part of society believes it does,” said Harrison, who was placed on a monitor for a year after serving his sentence.

Harrison received educational credits in prison, taught classes, and participated in other programs that would help him come back into society “fully equipped to be a productive citizen and add value to community.” But Harrison says when the parole board put him on a monitor for his supervised release period without reason or warning, he was taken aback.

“It’s almost hard to put in words the amount of stress and fear [that comes from] being on electronic monitoring,” explains Harrison, who said he’s missed the funeral of a loved one because he couldn’t get permission from authorities to leave his home in time.

The operator at the “call center is not an actual parole agent, but [the operator] has authority to restrict your movement or say you don’t have permission although the parole agent does the physical visits and knows you,” explained Harrison. “That’s too much power.”

A person who violates the terms of their supervised release may be required to complete the rest of their remaining time in prison.

“It’s time for electronic monitoring to be recognized as what it is. It’s incarceration … a serious violation of people’s freedom,” said Staudt.

Harrison said he hopes the passing of this bill will help those “silently suffering, silently disenfranchised” to move on with their lives. “If we have paid our debt to society in full according to the courts, let us get out and be free,” he said.