Sheriff Tom Dart wants more restrictions for people on electronic monitoring

The Cook County sheriff is pushing to repeal a law that allows people on EM freedom for essential activities like grocery shopping.

Tom Dart
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart speaking at a press conference, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021 at Cook County Sheriffs Police headquarters in Maywood, IL. Anthony Vazquez / Chicago Sun-Times
Tom Dart
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart speaking at a press conference, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021 at Cook County Sheriffs Police headquarters in Maywood, IL. Anthony Vazquez / Chicago Sun-Times

Sheriff Tom Dart wants more restrictions for people on electronic monitoring

The Cook County sheriff is pushing to repeal a law that allows people on EM freedom for essential activities like grocery shopping.

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Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is continuing his calls to repeal part of an Illinois law that gives people on electronic monitoring (EM) the ability to leave their houses two days a week so they can work, attend classes and purchase groceries. Advocates of the SAFE-T Act have argued that allowing some movement decreases instability in people’s lives while they await trial and, therefore, increases public safety in the long run. But Dart, who oversees electronic monitoring for the county, has argued the law creates a safety risk.

Electronic monitors can track where defendants are located, and Dart told county commissioners during yearly budget hearings on Wednesday that he has to “literally shut their machine off” during those 48 hours of “essential movement.” There is nothing in the SAFE-T Act that mandates Dart turn off machines or stop surveillance — the law only requires that people on EM have the ability to leave their house for essential tasks.

But Dart said there is no practical way for his office to surveil thousands of people on EM if they are allowed to move about the city on different days.

A spokesperson for Dart’s office said when people leave their homes, the sheriff’s office gets alerts that they have done so. That’s useful when someone is not allowed to leave their property, but is useless when people have permission.

In a written statement, Dart complained: “The practical effect of free movement is that alerts about the whereabouts of individuals are silenced and unmonitored during the hours that individuals are on free movement to avoid generating potentially millions of erroneous movement alerts each week.”

The machines, however, could still be used to supply information to law enforcement. Even if the alerts are turned off, the EM bracelet still tracks a person’s location. For example, if a suspect is accused of a carjacking, their bracelet could show if they were at that location.

Advocates argue that the law allowing movement is essential to respecting people’s human rights and correcting previous practices where people on electronic monitoring were prevented from doing essential tasks like getting food or attending funerals. Previously, people on EM could apply for permission to go to work or other key activities, but the system was beset by well-documented problems of denials, slow approvals and false alarms that could lead to incarceration.

Dart, who presents himself as a progressive, has raised the ire of some activist groups with his comments on electronic monitoring. He referred to people on EM as “violent” and said judges can release people without EM if they don’t believe monitoring is necessary. A report from the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts said nearly half the people on EM are charged with possessing a gun without a license, while another 29% were charged with property, vehicle or drug crimes.

The Coalition to End Money Bond, an organization pushing for the elimination of money in jailing decisions, accused Dart of engaging in “the same racist fear-mongering tactics being used by MAGA conservatives,” referencing a misinformation campaign about the SAFE-T Act.

The most controversial piece of the law has not been the electronic monitoring provisions, but changes to bail reform. Under the new law, judges will no longer require anyone to pay money bail to get out of jail while they await their trial. Instead, judges will make decisions about who is locked up based on their offense and whether they are deemed a flight risk or a safety threat.

Law enforcement officials across the state have raised concerns that the change will mean more people are released from jail and put communities in danger, while proponents of the bill have said it will actually make communities safer by forcing courts to focus on the most serious crimes.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Dart said the bail provisions in the SAFE-T Act were unlikely to have a huge effect on the jail’s population because Cook County has already made big changes to bail practices that have allowed a large number of people to leave the jail without paying cash.

Shannon Heffernan is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow her at @shannon_h. Email her at sheffernan@wbez.org.