When accused murderers are released on electronic monitoring, something is dangerously wrong
Public safety relies on an array of police, prosecutors, judges, appellate courts and elected officials working smoothly together to ensure the criminal justice system is responsible and fair.
But the gears don’t appear to be meshing properly in Cook County — something is clearly wrong — when it comes to recent bond and electronic monitoring reforms, which are intended as alternatives to keeping suspects locked up in jail while awaiting trial.
Most troubling? Some people charged with murder have been going home on electronic monitoring.
We had better fix this.
Murder, robbery and guns
On Sunday, Frank Main of the Sun-Times reported that the number of suspects freed from jail this year to await trial included more than 1,000 people charged with murder, robbery or illegal possession of guns. On Aug. 9, the county’s electronic monitoring program included 43 people facing murder charges. That’s 40% more than on the same day last year.
We’re guessing that most people who have supported the greater use of electronic monitoring, as opposed to the holding of these suspects in jail, have assumed the beneficiaries would not include a significant number of murder suspects. In a flip-flop that can only be called startling, the most common charge suspects on electronic monitoring faced in 2016-2017 was drug possession. Since 2018, it has been gun possession.
Bail reform measures over the last several years have been justified — and we thought sincerely were intended — as a way to prevent low-level offenders from languishing in jail because they couldn’t come up with a small amount of money for bail. Poverty should not be a factor in who is jailed. And the expansion of electronic monitoring was pursued as a way to alleviate jail overcrowding.
But over time, people charged with more serious offenses have been released from jail.
The quickest way to subvert the promise of de-incarceration — to turn supporters of reform into opponents — is to release on electronic monitoring people who, really and truly, should be held behind bars.
Blame game never helps
We’d feel more confident that this problem will be fixed if our local officials spoke with one voice, explaining how they’re working together to make us safer and the criminal justice system more fair. But, instead, we’ve seen a lot of blame going around.
After the recent looting in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Police Supt. David Brown made the argument, based on scant evidence, that the problem was fueled in part by too many people going right back onto the streets after being arrested for serious crimes. They put the blame, that is to say, on prosecutors and the courts.
Brown also has said that many of those being set free on electronic monitoring are responsible for the steep rise in killings this year in Chicago. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, however, disputes this, pointing out that only 26 of the more than 1,800 people arrested for illegal gun possession in the first six months of 2020 were repeat offenders.
The divisions go beyond those among Lightfoot, Brown and Foxx. There’s also a deep lack of trust between Lightfoot and some cops on the street. And the U.S. attorney’s office has started taking gun cases directly from Chicago police, without going through Foxx’s office.
As for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who was the first sheriff in the nation to call for the end of cash bail, he was promptly sued when he suggested that judges reconsider some cases in which they had put suspects on electronic monitoring.
It’s easy to look for scapegoats, in Chicago and elsewhere, when crime rates soar. But it gets us nowhere.
A response to COVID-19
The idea behind electronic monitoring is that suspects can stay at home instead of in prison except when they go to work or school. The number of people on monitoring has increased this year partly to keep COVID-19 from spreading.
But electronic monitoring doesn’t necessarily prevent crimes. Suspects can commit additional crimes in their homes or on their way to work or school or by disabling their ankle bracelets or by simply ignoring them. A recent Chicago Tribune analysis found that Foxx dropped charges in a large percentage of cases in which suspects were accused of violating electronic monitoring rules.
In one alarming case, Dimitris Horns, 18, cut off his ankle bracelet, left his home and allegedly shot a man in the face in Englewood.
Further complicating the program is that Dart oversees many suspects on electronic monitoring while Chief Judge Timothy Evans does so for probation and pretrial cases. It might be wise to bring those responsibilities together into a central electronic monitoring system that uses the most up-to-date technology.
Up to now, the expansion of electronic monitoring has not been accompanied by an increase in resources for the program. More than 3,330 people are now electronically monitored, compared with about 2,200 last year, according to Dart’s office.
An electronic monitoring system that frees accused murderers from jail while they await trial is fundamentally absurd. We have supported the larger aims of the de-incarceration movement, and we will continue to do so, but this had better get fixed.
In last week’s Democratic National Convention, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris passed the character test. Now as President Donald Trump rolls out his virtual convention, they must ace the agenda test. They need to argue the case for the bold agenda that this country desperately needs, and challenge Trump for his policy failures.
The Democratic National Convention focused on the character test. Speaker after speaker contrasted the decency of Joe Biden against what Trump’s own sister called the “phoniness” of Donald Trump, a man she said of “no principles, none.”
The convention introduced Kamala Harris to the country, highlighting her remarkable journey from the child of immigrants, the student at Howard University, California attorney general and senator to the presidential ticket. Jill Biden demonstrated her commitment to family and to teaching.
The convention displayed the character of the party — its diversity, its inclusiveness, its concern for justice. In powerful presentations, Michelle and Barack Obama made the case about why Trump is just not up to the job of president, particularly in a time of crisis. “It is what it is,” as Michelle concluded.
That left little time to address the agenda. It’s not that it does not exist. The Democratic platform — largely a product of the task forces put together by Biden and Bernie Sanders — details a broad, progressive agenda for change. Biden’s own web page and speeches over the course of the nominating process have presented elements of his program. But no one but political junkies read party platforms, and few probe candidate websites. It is now up to Biden and Harris to lay out their case — and contrast it with Trump’s failed administration.
The priorities are clear. In the immediate short-term, Trump’s catastrophic mismanagement of the pandemic must be replaced by a comprehensive national strategy to get the pandemic under control so lives are saved and the economy can start up again.
The 30 million people who have been forced onto unemployment — disproportionately lower wage workers, disproportionately Black and Hispanic — need immediate assistance.
Trump and the Republican Senate stood in the way of the needed rescue package, objecting to continuing the $600 a week enhancement to unemployment insurance, aid to the U.S. Postal Service to manage the expected surge in voting by mail, aid to cities and states facing massive layoffs of police, teachers, transit workers and more after their budgets were busted by the economic collapse and the costs of dealing with the pandemic.
Already another round of layoffs is expected, and 20 to 30 million families are threatened with eviction or foreclosure. Schools are struggling with reopening without the resources needed to pay for the protections health officials say are necessary. Yet, Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused even to meet Democratic House leaders halfway to get a bill done.
In the longer run, major changes are needed to make this economy work for working people.
We need a bold initiative to rebuild infrastructure and make it sustainable, a transition to renewable energy to fend off climate change and create millions of good jobs.
We need major investment in science and technology so America can regain its lead in innovation and job growth. We need a new trade strategy and industrial policy that rebuilds good jobs at home, ensures we make essential products here in the U.S., and demands a balanced playing field from China and other countries that trample trading rules.
At the same time, we need to ensure that workers gain a fair share of the profits and productivity that they help generate. Biden has promised to lift the minimum wage to $15 an hour. We need to empower workers to organize and crack down on labor rights abuses by corporate managers. The economic bill of rights for essential workers should be detailed and readied for passage.
Paid family leave and sick leave is vital. Affordable, high-quality child care essential for working parents and their children.
The health care gap must be closed, with affordable health care for all guaranteed. The education gap must be closed, with resources for public schools from pre-K through college. Biden has promised tuitionfree education for all students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year in contrast to Trump’s lack of concern for the burden of mounting student debt. The wealth gap must be addressed, with progressive taxes helping to reverse the extreme inequality that now threatens our democracy.
We must address the constitutional right to vote. The right to vote should be protected, with restoration of the Voting Rights Act, automatic voter registration, expanded vote by mail and early voting, an end to partisan gerrymandering, and limits on big money in politics. Biden should support the constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to vote in America.
The systemic racism built into our criminal justice system must be redressed. Equal pay for women should no longer be an issue.
The priorities are many. Biden and Harris must be aggressive in putting forth their agenda, explaining its import and defending its elements. Trump has already made it clear that his campaign will be based on lies and libels about the Democratic agenda. He has already called Biden the “puppet of the radical left,” who wants to “defund the police “and “abolish the suburbs.” He’ll burlesque the Democratic agenda across the country. It is vital that Biden and Harris argue their case. If they do, there is no question that they will ace the agenda test that Trump has already failed. They have little more than two months to get that done.
The University of North Carolina abandoned in-person classes at the first sign of infections on campus. The University of Notre Dame and Michigan State punted even before they got started.
There are dozens of large institutions planning to hold in-person education, while the University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign is using a hybrid model, mixing in-person and online classes. Can the U. of I. succeed where so many others have and will fail?
With their frequent testing plan in place, they have a good chance to succeed.
When students first show up on campus, even a modest positivity rate of 2% will result in 500 to 900 initial infections. The key to success is preventing such infections from spreading unfettered across campus and into the local community, particularly to at-risk people.
Proven public health practices that reduce the spread of the virus are critical on all campuses. These include guidelines requiring face coverings, physical distancing, and hand hygiene, supplemented with isolation and contact tracing as needed.
If 80% or more of the students comply with these practices, the community basic reproduction number — the average number of people to whom an infected person spreads the virus — can fall below one. At that a point, new infection growth will be attenuated, effectively allowing community transmission to be controlled though isolation and contact tracing. Most universities are employing such techniques
Testing, testing, and more testing is the road to the promised land for in-person education. Testing allows campuses to map the infection landscape, identifying the numerous asymptomatic students who can foment community transmission on campus and into the local community. Rapid turnaround of the test results is critical, particularly with so many asymptomatic infections, since the value of tests fall precipitously within 24 hours.
Many schools are testing students only upon their arrival to campus, and one week later. Then they are waiting for students to show symptoms before they test again. This strategy is a formula for disaster, given that a majority of infected student will be asymptomatic or display only mild symptoms.
The game changer at the University of Illinois is the rapid saliva testing protocol that they developed, similar to the test developed at Yale University and being employed by the NBA. This allows thousands of tests to be administered each day and deliver the results within hours. With such widespread surveillance of campus-wide infections, the university can limit infection outbreaks, with isolation and quarantine of infected and exposed students. Every person on campus must be tested twice per week, or they will be denied access to university buildings based on a university-developed app tracking system.
The University of Illinois testing strategy represents 20% of all tests administered in the state of Illinois and 1.5% of all tests administered nationwide. If the 50 largest universities in the country used the saliva test, the number of tests nationwide could double. More importantly, the test would be catching asymptomatic infections, the most deadly virus spreaders.
Like all successful strategies, the devil is in the details. The university must deliver on providing the results of their saliva test within hours. Any delays can spawn community transmission, as infected people may unknowingly spread the virus.
The bigger challenge is student adherence and buy-in to the testing system. With most infected students either asymptomatic or with mild symptoms, a positive test is more of an inconvenience to their education and social activities than a health risk. Students who sidestep the university testing surveillance system undermine its purpose and effectiveness. Such actions will lead to more community transmission, resulting in surges of new cases, potentially forcing the campus to move all classes online.
The students will make or break the University of Illinois testing and surveillance system. Students now know that if they circumvent the recommendations, they jeopardize the in-person component of their education, just as was seen at the University of North Carolina. The students carry the responsibility for keeping the University of Illinois in-person component alive. They must make individual choices with community-wide implications.
The university hopes that they choose wisely.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in risk-based assessment to evaluate and inform public policy.
Janet A. Jokela, M.D., MPH, is the acting regional dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Urbana-Champaign. She has served as an infectious disease and public health consultant throughout her career.
An electronic ankle bracelet used in Kane County in 2009.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris at the convention last week.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus.