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As States Look To Cut Jail Populations, Electronic ‘Miniature Prisons’ Are On the Rise

There are more than 2,700 people on electronic monitoring in Cook County, Illinois, alone.

a man adjusts his ankle monitor
Mario Tama/Getty Images

After spending 14 months incarcerated because she couldn’t afford $250,000 bail, Lavette Mayes was relieved when the Chicago Community Bond Fund posted her bond and she was allowed to leave the Cook County Jail.

But when she returned home, life wasn’t as she expected. She had lost her home and transportation business and was forced to stay with a friend. Even worse, she had to wear an ankle monitor and was prohibited from leaving her home—first at all and then for large chunks of the day.

“The restrictions that came with being on electronic monitoring were extremely hard,” Mayes said.

In total, Mayes spent 121 days on electronic monitoring until her charges stemming from a physical altercation with her mother-in-law were resolved. She struggled to care for her two children, including an autistic son. She couldn’t take out the garbage and she said she could not seek medical care for a complication from a recent surgery. She had to cook and clean and continue to mother her children, all while confined to her house.

“My whole family was incarcerated because of being on this,” she said.

Because of the trauma of electronic monitoring, she decided to plead guilty rather than fight her case in court. Accepting the plea deal, she said, meant she would no longer have to subject herself to GPS tracking and surveillance around the clock.

There are more than 2,700 people on electronic monitoring in Cook County, Illinois, alone, according to a local news report. Across the country, the rate of electronic monitoring has increased significantly. According to a Pew study, the number of active offender-monitoring devices increased nearly 140 percent from 2005 to 2015, when more than 125,000 people were supervised with the devices.

Electronic monitoring programs are increasingly used as a way to reduce jail and prison populations while still ensuring that people return to court.

“It’s like putting little miniature prisons and jails in the community,” Mayes said. “And you’re not even able to provide or do anything in your community or let alone help your family. It’s not an answer. It’s not a solution for incarceration.”

While at first glance electronic monitoring may seem better than being in jail, criminal justice advocates say those are not the only two options. People awaiting trial can be released on their own recognizance or without posting bail, they say, instead of subjecting them to the privacy and individual liberty violations that come with releasing a person with an ankle bracelet.

It’s like putting little miniature prisons and jails in the community.

Lavette Mayes Chicago resident

In a vast majority of instances, individuals will show up to court with little more than a reminder, Sharlyn Grace, co-executive director of the Chicago Community Bail Fund, told The Appeal.

“Our position on this is to always be pushing for the most freedom possible,” she said. “For the vast majority of people, that’s going to be release without these conditions.”

Grace explained that many judges, especially in Cook County, are using electronic monitoring as a “risk mitigation tool.” As an understanding emerges across the country that excessive bail is keeping too many people in jail because they can’t afford to pay, some judges remain hesitant to release individuals without restrictions. Meanwhile, the understanding of the risks of electronic monitoring is low, Grace said, as there have been few studies or reports.  

“These are tremendous restrictions on liberty that we’re placing on people who haven’t been convicted,” she said.

Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart oversees the department’s electronic monitoring program, one of two pretrial monitoring programs in the county. Though he has said he supports efforts to reduce his jail population, Dart has also said he believes that bond reform has gone too far and that too many people with “serious” crimes are being released. In 2018, he refused to release dozens of people from his jail who had been ordered onto electronic monitoring.

In February 2018, the Chicago Community Bond Fund paid bond for a woman ordered onto electronic monitoring, but Dart refused to release her for three days. The woman sued, and the case is ongoing.

That same month, Dart wrote a letter announcing that his office would review all orders to release people on electronic monitoring.

“Moving forward, my office will closely scrutinize all individuals who are assigned to E.M. by carefully reviewing their charges and criminal histories, a process that may take up to 48 hours,” Dart wrote. “Those who are deemed to be too high a security risk to be in the community will be referred back to the court for further evaluation.”

Cara Smith, chief policy officer for Dart’s office, told The Appeal that people are commonly held for multiple days after they are ordered onto electronic monitoring.

“Sometimes it takes a couple of days for someone to be placed if they don’t have a place to live,” she said. “It’s not like they just walk out the door. We have to make sure they have a place that they can be monitored from.”

Still, local news reports are sounding the alarm about the perceived laxness of electronic monitoring. On Feb. 11, Chicago’s ABC affiliate ran a story that said more than 300 people were missing from Cook County’s electronic monitoring program. In the report, Smith said the challenge of locating missing individuals has worsened since bond reform. But in an interview with The Appeal, she said the report was misleading.

The data the report used showing 300 missing individuals was spread across decades since the beginning of the sheriff’s office’s electronic monitoring program in 1989. A large number of the missing have since been apprehended or located in other states or countries.

Mayes, who knows what it’s like to be monitored, said she also found the report misleading.

These are tremendous restrictions on liberty that we’re placing on people who haven’t been convicted.

Sharlyn Grace co-executive director of the Chicago Community Bail Fund

“When you look at the risks that it would take if you leave electronic monitoring, it would have to be something serious for that person to go AWOL,” she said.

Despite the report’s flaws, Smith said it was accurate in its characterization of how more individuals accused of “violent” crimes—mostly gun crimes—are being released on electronic monitoring since bond reform. “That presents us with bigger challenges,” she said.

“The stakes are much higher in terms of running the program in a way that protects public safety,” she added. “We need to make sure that when people run, we’re getting warrants right away, that we’re doing our best to try to apprehend them.”

In the last 18 months, Cook County has released more than 24,000 people pretrial. The vast majority have had less restrictive conditions than electronic monitoring, according to Grace. In total, just .6 percent of the felony defendants who were released between Oct. 1, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2018, were charged with committing a new violent offense while in the community, according to data from Cook County.

Grace said she disagrees with the idea that policy should be designed based on such a small percentage of people affected.

“It’s not responsible to highlight those exceptions,” she said.  

Mayes warned that by highlighting the issues with electronic monitoring, the sheriff is pushing for more incarceration.

“It works out in their favor to scare people into not wanting electronic monitoring and wanting harder stipulations,” she said. “They’re trying to scare the community into saying, ‘No please, don’t give them electronic monitoring. Keep them incarcerated.’”

But some in the state are starting to push back on the increase in electronic monitoring. Representative Carol Ammons, a Democrat, plans to introduce a bill that will target post-conviction electronic monitoring, which is run by the Illinois Department of Corrections. Last Friday, the Illinois legislature held a hearing on the issue and a potential effort to eliminate or significantly reduce the use of electronic monitoring for people who have been released from Illinois state prisons. James Kilgore, who spent time on electronic monitoring after a prison sentence and who now leads the Center for Media Justice’s Challenging E-carceration project, said the hearing broke new ground.

To our knowledge this is the first legislative hearing anywhere in the U.S. investigating the use and abuse of EM for people who have completed their prison sentences,” Kilgore said in an email.

According to Kilgore, the Illinois Department of Corrections has several thousand people on electronic monitoring at any given time, but has not conducted any studies into its impact.

Mayes, who knows what the program feels like pretrial, said she hopes lawmakers reconsider using it.

“This has to stop,” Mayes said. “It’s designed for people to fail.”

If Cook County wants to work toward reducing its incarceration rates, “electronic monitoring is not the way,” she added. “It’s not the way to make someone feel successful coming out of jail.”