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A person released from the Cook County Jail in Chicago wears an electronic monitoring device similar to those used by many former prisoners in Illinois.
Justice Lab

Illinois puts ankle monitors on thousands. Now it has to figure out who gets tracked—and why

Corrections officials have little data on the electronic monitoring of former prisoners. A new bill aims to change that.

The Illinois Legislature has passed a bill requiring corrections officials to maintain and publish data on electronic monitoring of former prisoners, including their racial makeup and how many of them commit new crimes.

The legislation comes after a heated state judiciary hearing during which advocates and legislators criticized the misuse of electronic monitoring, and an independent report that showed how little data the Prisoner Review Board and Department of Corrections kept on those they placed on tracking devices.

In response, the legislature unanimously passed a bill that would require both the board and department to produce an annual report of who goes on electronic monitoring and why.

“We were struck that the PRB struggled to answer some pretty basic questions about who was using their program, why they were putting certain people on electronic monitoring, how they were making those decisions and what the results were,” said Sarah Staudt, a senior policy analyst with the Chicago Appleseed for Justice, a criminal justice advocacy group that helped draft the legislation. Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign it into law.

Every year, the Illinois Prisoner Review Board places thousands of people who have fully served their time on electronic monitoring devices. The state does not have parole and instead requires a period of supervised release for everyone. State officials say that the tracking devices help reduce the number of high-risk criminals committing future crimes.

But at a hearing in February, corrections officials admitted they had little evidence that ankle bracelets worked and couldn’t answer questions on how many people go back into prison for violating the conditions of their release, or even how many on monitors were at a high risk of committing another crime.

Shortly after the hearing, the state’s oversight organization, the Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, released a damning report that contradicted earlier statements from officials and commonly held notions on how the board decides who is monitored.

By law, the Prisoner Review Board must put prisoners who committed sex offenses or violent crimes on electronic monitoring devices. Corrections officials have said they place ankle bracelets only on those offenders. But the council’s report found that the overwhelming majority of people being tracked committed nonviolent offenses, while only half of those who committed crimes requiring a monitor actually get one.

The report is the first time the state has thoroughly examined its own program, said Kathryn Saltmarsh, the executive director of the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, which published the report. “It indicated we don’t have a good handle on administering this program,” she said.

The report also found that people are placed in the monitoring program most often because of criminal history—not current behavior. In nearly half the cases, no reasons were provided for the decision to use an ankle bracelet. When justifications were provided, the top three reasons were a long criminal history, a firearms offense or a serious felony offense. (The report didn’t look at the reasons why people were exempted from electronic monitoring).

Activists say the report is proof that the board’s decisions are ambiguous and inconsistent.

“Some of this feels like they’re just spitballing on who should be monitored,” said Patrice James, director of community justice at the Sargent Shriver Center on Poverty Law, a nonprofit in Chicago.

There has been little research done on how well electronic monitoring programs work. Few states currently track or publish the demographics of those on monitors, according to prison reform advocates. They expect the bill to be a vital check on the program’s operations, which have cost over $32.5 million since 2014, according to a state contract.

“You would think that after millions of dollars over the past decade, they’d want to see how effective or ineffective this is. But what we find is that there isn’t any data that supports if it’s effective at all,” said Emmett Sanders, a researcher for the Challenging E-carceration Project, an advocacy program that argues against the use of electronic monitoring. “It would behoove the DOC to collect this data, if only to justify spending that much money over that period of time.”

The legislation could also make Illinois a leader in understanding the role that race, gender and past criminal histories play in decisions on ankle bracelets, said James Kilgore, a Soros fellow with the Challenging E-carceration Project.

But there are logistical problems with documenting those on ankle bracelets in Illinois. Both the Prison Review Board and Department of Corrections were paper-based for decades. Corrections moved to digital records in 2010, while the review board is only now starting to digitize. There is no central database departments can consult to trace back individuals who are on electronic monitoring.

When the Sentencing Policy Advisory Council reviewed over 2,100 cases that the Prisoner Review Board provided, researchers had to scan in hand-written notes and paper forms.

The board welcomes the changes, according to Jason Sweat, a spokesman. “The board saw that this is an area that could be improved,” he said. “It is clear that additional data has an added ability to know what works and what doesn’t, and maybe even figuring out why that is true will help us in achieving those two primary goals.”