Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office is tightening its electronic monitoring rules to clarify that apartment dwellers in the program cannot do things like get mail from their building’s vestibule or use a basement laundry room.
The revisions follow an Illinois appellate ruling last month that slammed Dart for “ambiguity” on whether residents of multi-unit buildings can be in common spaces for such “activities of daily living.” The three-judge panel threw out an escape conviction of a South Side man imprisoned nearly five years for that felony after sheriff’s investigators did not find him in the apartment where he lived on home detention with an ankle bracelet. The man said he was showering at his sister’s unit — elsewhere in the building — and believed Dart’s electronic monitoring terms allowed it.
“While we do not believe the previous rules regarding movement of individuals on EM were in any way unclear, we have amended the language” on documents that pretrial defendants must sign to be on electronic monitoring instead of in jail, a written statement from Dart’s office said Wednesday.
The statement said the amendment specifies that electronic monitoring participants “are not permitted to be in common areas of multi-unit buildings, including but not limited to vestibules, laundry facilities, mailrooms or other units unless authorized.”
Jim Fessler, a former Chicago-based appeals attorney who now teaches law at the University of Illinois, said the change seems to “provide the clarity that the appellate court was looking for.”
But the new language heightens inequities in Dart’s electronic monitoring, according to Kareem Butler, a pretrial justice fellow at the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts.
“This is going to affect people of lower economic status, who are not homeowners and who don’t have facilities like laundry or mail” in their apartments, Butler said, adding that attending to those daily living tasks and communicating with neighbors is important for mental health.
Sharlyn Grace — senior policy adviser for Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr.’s office, which represented the South Side man in circuit court — said the appellate ruling was an opportunity for Dart to allow apartment dwellers on electronic monitoring “the very reasonable ability to do their laundry.”
“Instead,” Grace said, “the sheriff’s office chose to double down on draconian house arrest policies that are preventing people in apartment buildings from accessing the same basic activities as people who live in single-family homes.”
Imprisoned nearly five years
The appellate ruling, a unanimous April 7 decision, vacated the 2018 escape conviction of Demarko Williams. The conviction followed his acquittal on drug charges, the case that led to his electronic monitoring in the first place. Williams was imprisoned until last July for the escape conviction.
The appeals panel criticized Dart’s office for failing to define “residence” for electronically monitored detainees who live in multi-unit buildings:
“It’s not clear whether residence means one’s apartment, or also includes other spaces within one’s apartment building itself. This is surprising, given the large number of detainees on [electronic monitoring] who we presume live in apartments and whose activities of daily living, such as retrieving mail and doing laundry, necessitate regular access to other parts of their apartment buildings.”
Dart’s office initially was dismissive of the ruling, emailing a statement to WBEZ that said “no reasonable interpretation” of his electronic monitoring rules would allow the detainees “free rein to wander all over” a multi-unit building.
But State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office, which prosecuted Williams and won the escape conviction, has not petitioned for a rehearing by the appellate court or for permission to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. The deadlines for those filings have passed.
Revisions not yet widely published
Cook County has by far the largest electronic monitoring caseload of any U.S. county or city, according to a 2022 report commissioned by Cook County’s Justice Advisory Council. That caseload includes both pretrial defendants such as Williams and, on rare occasions, people convicted of minor crimes.
Judges, not the sheriff’s office, decide whether a pretrial defendant is kept in jail, put in home detention with electronic monitoring, or released.
Dart’s office runs most of the county’s electronic monitoring. Detainees in his program now total around 1,850, according to his office. Dart’s staff sets many of the rules for that confinement and can respond to violations by returning alleged offenders to jail or initiating criminal cases against them.
Dart’s office presents the rules in various formats, many available on the sheriff’s website, including a nine-minute video, a tri-folded “participant information brochure,” a four-page “information sheet,” and a “participant agreement” that detainees must sign or initial in 25 places.
As of Thursday, none of those materials included the new specification that laundry rooms and other common spaces of apartment buildings are off limits on electronic monitoring.
The sheriff’s office did not answer whether it has brought escape charges or any other sanctions against his program’s apartment-dwelling participants since the appellate ruling.
In Springfield, meantime, the Illinois law that defines escape from electronic monitoring has undergone changes. A reform that took effect in January 2022 redefined the offense as a violation of EM conditions that lasts at least 48 hours.
An amendment, signed by Gov. JB Pritzker in December, scrapped the 48-hour threshold and defined the crime as “knowingly” escaping or leaving “the geographic boundaries of an electronic monitoring or home detention program with the intent to evade prosecution.”