Cook County Runs Out of Electronic Monitors, Leaving People Incarcerated in the Jail During the COVID-19 Pandemic

 In General

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, the number of people placed on house arrest with sheriff’s electronic monitoring (EM) has exploded. There are currently more than 3,150 people on electronic monitoring. The number of people on EM has increased by more than 700 people since the stay at home order was announced by Governor Pritzker on March 20th, when an already astounding 2,454 people were on EM. This astronomical increase has now reached a cataclysmic impasse, given that the Cook County Sheriff’s Office has run out of electronic monitors. As a result, an unknown number of people ordered to EM by judges will instead remain incarcerated in Cook County Jail, where their lives will be at risk only because the county cannot provide the conditions of release.

In March, dozens of community and professional organizations across Cook County called for the mass release of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail to stop the spread of COVID-19. In response to organizing pressure and a petition from the Public Defender, the court created an expedited bond review process in late March. During those reviews, many judges chose to put individuals on electronic monitoring instead of just releasing them from the jail, effectively moving the site of their incarceration from the jail to their homes. If many of these individuals had the money to pay their original bonds, they would have been released without being placed on house arrest. Countless studies have shown that the payment of a money bond does not increase the likelihood that people will return to court. We reject the idea that people need to be subjected to surveillance simply because they weren’t able to pay a money bond.

Electronic monitoring is a severe restriction on people’s freedom. From the moment community groups began raising the alarm about the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people incarcerated in Cook County Jail, we have been clear that people should be released without restrictive conditions such as EM. Electronic monitoring is the most restrictive form of pretrial release, making it nearly impossible to attend work, school, or even doctor’s appointments. Currently, people on Sheriff’s EM are required to provide documentation of a scheduled doctor’s visit to be granted the ability to leave their home. They are routinely denied permission to go to the grocery store or leave their homes to perform other essential tasks of life. The Sheriff’s office typically requires 72 hours advance notice to review and approve these requests. Gaining this documentation for a medical visit can often be extremely difficult due to privacy protections. Movement restrictions due to EM can often delay or may sometimes completely prevent people from obtaining medical care in this critical public health moment.

We are demanding the release of people who remain incarcerated in Cook County Jail due to the lack of monitors. Judges must stop arbitrarily placing people on electronic monitoring, which needlessly places lives at risk as they wait in the jail for a monitor to become available. By continuing to assign EM as a condition of release, Cook County judges are effectively denying people release and putting them at risk of a pretrial death sentence from COVID-19. The solution to this is not procuring more monitors, it’s giving people their pretrial freedom.

Judges must receive guidance designed to limit the use of EM at this time and prioritize pretrial liberty. We are also calling on the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to immediately notify the Public Defender of all people in the jail because of a lack of equipment. Each of these individuals should receive a bond review where the condition of electronic monitoring should be removed. The State’s Attorney Office must not oppose motions to remove electronic monitoring as a condition of release.

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