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Ashna Arora and Jens Ludwig: Is electronic monitoring contributing to gun violence? Here’s a look at the data.
Wednesday, May 11, 2022 Chicago Tribune by Ashna Arora and Jens Ludwig
Homicides have surged by 60% in Chicago since 2019. Why? The search for answers has involved a lot of finger-pointing. This is partly because in Chicago, unlike in many U.S. cities, responsibility for different parts of the criminal justice system is split between the city and county. The latest headline-grabbing debate is about the growing use of electronic monitoring, or EM, under which people who get arrested then get released with GPS ankle bracelets as they await trial, rather than being jailed. Because reliable facts are scarcer than one would like, the result is a confused — and unnerved — public.
From looking at the data through September 2021, while there are aspects of the EM program some people might question, it’s an oversimplification to say EM is driving gun violence in Chicago.
Electronic monitoring was introduced in the Chicago area in 1989 by the Cook County sheriff’s office to try to reduce the jail population. Nationally, jail incarceration rates had more than doubled over the 1980s and showed no signs of slowing down.
But EM recently has become a political football. People who support EM see it as a way to keep the public safe while reducing jail stays, especially as COVID-19 spread in jails. Others have criticized EM for leading to the release of people who may threaten public safety.
What’s unfortunate about the debate is how hard it’s been to figure out what’s really going on. How many people are on EM? On what charges? How many get rearrested, and for what? Because no one knows, lots of people have been talking past each other.
The limited transparency of EM stands in stark contrast to most other aspects of modern life. Anyone with internet can find out about the weather tomorrow for anywhere in the world, the exact stage of production of their Domino’s Pizza order or Bulls star DeMar DeRozan’s free throw percentage (which would be 87.7%).
To figure out what’s going on with EM, we obtained data from the Cook County sheriff’s office, which as best we can tell is responsible for about 60% of all monitoring cases in the county. We haven’t been able to get data on the rest of the county’s EM cases, run by the chief judge’s office. Using the data we have, we focus mostly on what’s happening in Chicago to start to get a better picture of EM.
For starters, we can see why some people have wondered whether EM might contribute to gun violence here. In national surveys, Americans say they support the use of monitoring in cases of minor crimes but not for those accused of serious or violent crimes. Yet from 2016 to 2021, the number of people on EM in a homicide or shooting case in Chicago rose from 15 to 97.
One possible reason why EM is being used more often for gun violence defendants is a slowdown in how quickly the courts resolve such cases. The time people spend in jail for homicide or nonfatal shootings has increased, starting even before the pandemic began in March 2020. With gun violence cases waiting longer to get resolved, unless people are getting outright released with no conditions, the result will inevitably be more people in jail or on EM.
Another reason people might be nervous about EM is that a notable share of those on EM are consistently “AWOL,” or absence without leave. (The sheriff’s office classifies people as AWOL 72 hours after they’ve removed or otherwise disabled their GPS bracelet.) In a typical month, about 10% to 15% of the total EM population is AWOL.
The limitations of the current EM system can also be seen in the high rates at which people on EM are the victims of gun violence. The number of homicides per person for those on EM is over 18 times the citywide average. To the extent to which EM provides an opportunity to connect people to useful social services that can help those in highest need, including improved access to health care or housing access, the level of help currently being offered does not seem to be nearly comprehensive or intensive enough.
A final reason the public might be worried about the role EM has played in the city’s public safety challenges is that the use of EM did rise substantially in 2020, the same year that homicides also rose sharply.
Nonetheless, as best we can tell from the available data, crimes committed by people on EM don’t seem to be driving the current wave of gun violence.
First, the timing doesn’t seem to be quite right. While the EM population rose in 2020, the jail population was largely flat during this period. Taken at face value, this would seem to imply that the increase in EM cases is coming from people who would have otherwise been released on bond, not people who would have gone to jail.
Another way to see that the timing is not right is to look at the likelihood someone arrested in a gun violence case goes to jail. We can’t measure that perfectly, but we can look at the ratio of people jailed on homicide or nonfatal shooting charges to the number of people arrested for those crimes. If EM were driving gun violence, we might have expected a big drop around 2020 in the chances those arrested in shootings wound up in jail, but that doesn’t seem to have happened.
Finally, the total numbers just don’t seem to add up. In 2020, there were 274 more homicide victims in Chicago than in 2019. By comparison, the number of people arrested for a homicide they allegedly committed while out on EM increased from 2019 to 2020 by only four — from four to eight arrests. Even accounting for Chicago’s historically (and notoriously) low rate of making arrests in homicide cases, the so-called clearance rate, it seems very unlikely people on EM are driving our massive rise in gun violence.
Looking at data for nonfatal shootings tells a similar story.
How EM might affect gun violence in the future is an open question. Our data goes only through September 2021. Changes to the EM system since then, such as a January 2022 state law that gives people on EM two days of free movement a week, are not accounted for in our analysis. It’s possible the effects of EM could be different moving forward. But with the lack of data infrastructure currently in place, keeping track of what’s happening and diving deeper are hard.
Democracy can work only if the public understands what’s going on. A few years ago, our research center, the University of Chicago Crime Lab, worked with the city to build a violence reduction dashboard to help residents, local nongovernmental organizations and the media better understand the time and place patterns of violence in the city. For EM, New York City has already taken a big step in that direction by building a similar dashboard for its pretrial system and another for all arrests in the city. There’s no reason the same can’t be done for Chicago.
Ashna Arora is research director at the University of Chicago Crime Lab. Jens Ludwig is the Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and the Pritzker director of the Crime Lab.