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Ankle Monitor Shortage at Chicago Jail Put Prisoner Releases During COVID in Limbo

Civil rights groups had filed a federal lawsuit on April 9, 2020 that sought the release of medically vulnerable people from the jail during the pandemic. A federal judge ordered Sheriff Thomas Dart to increase testing and keep detainees apart from one another. Dart appealed, and his motion to stay was denied. [See: Mays v. Dart, Case No. 20 C 2134, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.)]

Reduction of the jail population came through electronic monitoring releases. The jail population dropped from 5,604 on March 1 to 4,281 on May 29. That increased the EM population from 2,417 on March 1 to 3,205. It was a move Dart criticized due to a lack of resources.

The surge in the need for devices caught sheriff officials off-guard. There were 10 detainees who could not be released on May 7 due to a shortage in ankle monitors, said Allison Peters’ assistant press secretary for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. They were processed on May 9 when equipment was received.

“By ordering someone to electronic monitoring, it’s considered a release decision,” said Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund. “But if there are no ankle shackles available, the person remains in jail. It’s a pretend decision with a de facto result of incarceration but without the court having to meet any of the standards required to justify someone’s pretrial incarceration.”

As of June 2, 2020, the EM population included “30 people charged with cannabis felony, 139 people charged with driving with a revoked or suspended license, 11 charged with misdemeanor theft, 180 with felony theft, 17 with criminal damage to property, and 150 with DUI,” The Appeal reported.

Sarah Staudt, senior policy analyst and staff attorney at the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, said many of these people should not be on EM when stay-at-home orders are in place and crime rates have dropped significantly. “There’s very little reason to believe EM is effective, which means that nobody needs to be on the monitor,” she said.

Despite the dangers of COVID-19 and the impossibility of social distancing within the confines of jail, State Attorney Kim Foxx’s office continued to argue against release in 80% of the 2,366 motions for bond reduction filed between March 23 and April 22. The rate of opposition was between 70% and 80%, from April 22 through May 6, the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice found.

In the face of that opposition, judges often ordered conditional release. “They granted a bond reduction to let someone out of custody, but they mandated that the person be on electronic monitoring,” Staudt said.

As of May 31, 2020, 542 detainees had tested positive for COVID-19, and seven detainees and three sheriff’s office employees had died from the disease. No further deaths had been reported since. 


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