Mayor Lori Lightfoot and police leaders lean on flawed information to argue releasing criminal defendants on electronic monitoring worsens violence problem




  • In US
  • 2022-01-14 11:00:00Z
  • By Chicago Tribune

At the end of a year that saw at least 800 homicides in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot last month wrote to the Cook County chief judge with a request: Judges should immediately stop ordering certain defendants to await trial at home with an electronic-monitoring ankle bracelet.

It would be a sweeping policy change intended to keep violent offenders securely behind bars, albeit with implications for thousands of people who would likely be kept in custody as their cases took months if not years to proceed.

But many of the claims and statistics related in her letter and repeated at a press conference earlier this month are misleading - and some are simply inaccurate, the Tribune has found after examining the cases highlighted by the mayor.

Her letter cites data showing that 15 people were arrested and charged with murder last year while they were on electronic monitoring, commonly known as EM. But in at least five of those cases, the homicides actually occurred before the defendant was on an ankle bracelet, according to the Tribune's review. And in at least one of the 15 cases, the defendant was not actually charged with murder at all.

The Tribune obtained a partially redacted list of the cases and identified the defendants by cross-referencing public records, and then brought the results to the mayor's office and police.

The letter also claims that 7-year-old Jaslyn Adams was killed last year by someone on EM - a statement police Superintendent David Brown has also made. The Tribune reviewed records of all three men charged in her slaying, and found no evidence that any of them were on an ankle bracelet when she was shot.

And the mayor's letter significantly overstated the number of defendants placed on ankle bracelets while awaiting trial for murder after relying on flawed information from another agency. Lightfoot's letter contends that some 90 people accused of murder were on EM. But as of Jan. 3, the day before the news conference, the number was closer to 50, the Tribune has found.

In a series of emailed responses to questions from the Tribune about the moratorium, Lightfoot representatives repeatedly said that too many people awaiting trial in Chicago are "violent offenders" and that bond amounts have not reflected the seriousness of their crimes or criminal histories.

"The Mayor believes that defendants with violent criminal histories should not be placed back into the community on EM," the written statement said.

Shootings and homicides are up more than 60% over two years in Chicago. In the wake of that violence, Lightfoot and Brown have repeatedly pointed the finger at the courts - which are not under the city's control - for releasing too many allegedly violent people before trial.

By fine-tuning her argument to focus on electronic monitoring, Lightfoot joins a long-running and complicated battle over who should be on the ankle bracelets.

And her claims paint a specific picture of the Cook County justice system, one in which gun-toting suspects are released from custody pretrial only to re-offend with impunity. Some of the allegations in the cases do in fact feature repeat offenders and people whose alleged crimes escalate. But the overall picture is far more nuanced.

A judge has three basic options when determining where a defendant should await trial. They can hold the defendant in custody without bond; release them on their own recognizance; or order them released if they pay a certain amount of bail. In addition, the judge can order the defendant to wear an electronic ankle bracelet as a condition of their release on bond. Judges weigh a complicated set of factors in a short amount of time to determine whether the defendant is a flight risk or poses a threat to public safety.

Cook County has two electronic monitoring systems: one operated by the chief judge's office, and the other run by the sheriff. The data underlying Lightfoot's claims appear to focus solely on the sheriff's home-monitoring program. Defendants on that program are meant to be effectively under house arrest, sheriff's officials have said, wearing the electronic ankle bracelet to ensure compliance.

Fact flaws in cases

Lightfoot earlier announced her call for a moratorium in an unusual year-end public safety speech on Dec. 20 in Garfield Park, where she said electronic monitoring should not be an option for individuals charged with violent crimes.

The Cook County public defender's office cried foul immediately, saying it is unconstitutional to bar someone's release from jail based solely on the type of charge they face. Chief Judge Timothy Evans later weighed in, raising the same concerns.

Lightfoot's request was documented in her letter, dated Dec. 29, which was sent to Evans, flagging a list of charges, including murder, attempted murder, aggravated gun possession, sex crimes, illegal gun possession, carjacking, kidnapping or attempted kidnapping.

In it, she referenced two different sets of data as she made her argument to limit the use of EM, calling the "ballooning release of violent and dangerous people on EM"a "driver" of violence.

One was from the Cook County sheriff's office, which stated that of the list of people released on EM, 90 were facing murder charges.

The number, as it turns out, is incorrect. The sheriff's data labels other kinds of cases - mostly attempted murder - as murder cases, according to recent reviews of the data by both the Cook County public defender's office and the Tribune. Of 95 murder cases in a Jan. 3 list provided to the Tribune by the sheriff, for example, at least 45 were mislabeled.

The sheriff's office, when asked about the count of 90 murder charges, acknowledged that about half of the current records should have been listed as attempted murder.

"There is nothing more important than the integrity of the data we use to evaluate the criminal justice system," the office said in an emailed statement. "Confusion over the tally resulted from the inadvertent inclusion of attempted murder charges in the murder column due to a data error that has been corrected."

Some defendants on the sheriff's list, while their attempted murder cases were mislabeled, are in fact people with histories of gun charges who are accused of shooting people. Others are accused of shooting at someone, but not wounding them.

But the Tribune's review of the wrongly labeled murder cases also shows that some of the attempted murder charges are domestic-related or involve allegations that someone ran over the victim with a car - crimes that, while violent, do not necessarily represent Chicago's gun violence problem.

The faults in the data are why a blanket policy that takes decision-making out of a judge's hand is dangerous, said Amy Thompson, the deputy of central operations for the Cook County public defender.

"We've taken a lot of time to rebut what was easily fact-checked about this data that was relied on, and that distracts from our ability as an office to work up cases," she said. "We take the courtroom and the justice system very seriously. That is where these things should be determined, with judges. Not public opinion."

Lightfoot's letter to Evans also cited from a second dataset, a list compiled by Chicago police that counted 130 times someone was arrested for a violent offense while on EM last year.

The list, obtained by the Tribune, is titled "EM Firearm Related Offences: 2021."

"This information covers individuals arrested for firearm-related offenses while on electronic monitoring," reads the top of the list, which was generated by the Chicago Police Department's Strategic Initiative Division.

The Tribune searched about 60 of the 130 records, using various publicly available datasets to find details on some of the cases.

Of the cases the Tribune was able to find, the most serious charge, murder, revealed some of the most obvious flaws.

Fifteen people on electronic monitoring picked up a new murder charge last year, according to the city's list of 130 defendants. But at least five of those arrests were for homicides that happened before the suspect was given an ankle bracelet.

One such defendant was ordered to electronic monitoring in July 2021 on a gun-possession case. A few months after that, he was charged with murder in a homicide that had happened almost two years earlier, in December 2019.

Another defendant was placed on EM in January 2021 after being charged with a domestic-related stabbing. When the victim in that case died, the charge was upgraded to murder and he was again ordered to the ankle bracelet, after posting a higher bail.

At least one defendant on the list of 15 is not charged with murder at all. He faces an attempted murder charge. And the shooting he allegedly committed happened almost a year before he was placed on EM for a pending drug case.

One defendant who did allegedly commit murder while on EM had been given the ankle bracelet for a pending drug case, not the kind of violent offense that Lightfoot's proposed moratorium would target.

Lightfoot's letter also invokes one of the most heartbreaking shootings of 2021: The killing of 7-year-old Jaslyn Adams, who was shot six times while she waited in the drive-thru at a West Side McDonald's.

The list of 130 arrestees who picked up a violence charge while on EM includes Jaslyn's shooter, Lightfoot claimed. Brown has also publicly said that Jaslyn was shot by someone on EM.

But in fact, none of the three men charged in connection with Jaslyn's murder were on an ankle bracelet at the time of the shooting, the Tribune has found. One had been put on EM for a robbery charge, but a judge ordered the ankle bracelet removed about six months before Jaslyn was killed. He was out on bond but not on electronic monitoring at the time of the shooting.

When asked by the Tribune, neither city nor police officials explained the discrepancy.

Still, to Lightfoot's overarching point, some of the 130 cases on the list do in fact show a defendant's alleged recidivism - or even escalation - while on electronic monitoring.

An alleged gang member was charged with gun possession in 2018 and given a $100,000 bond, plus EM as a condition of bail; it was lowered to $50,000 plus EM a few months later, over prosecutors' objection. In February 2020, a charitable bail fund posted the necessary $5,000 for his release in the ankle monitor.

In October 2021, police executed a search warrant at his home, according to an arrest report. They saw a blue backpack thrown out of a window. A weapon inside came out and when it landed, fired a round, the report stated.

The alleged gang member was found next to an open window inside the apartment, according to police. Officers ultimately recovered a high-powered rifle, a 50-shot drum magazine, and a loaded Glock handgun with a conversion switch giving it the power of a fully automatic weapon.

He was given a $250,000 bond on the new case, without the option of the ankle monitor.

Another man was put on EM after he was allegedly found with a pistol in September 2020. In January 2021, police arrested him near the Magnificent Mile carrying a loaded Glock 19 with an extended magazine and a conversion switch, according to his arrest report.

But gun possession cases can encompass a range of allegations, sometimes not even involving a firearm, which the Tribune found to be true in some of the cases highlighted by the mayor.

One defendant on the list of 130 had been released to EM in the spring of 2021 after a weapons charge, allegedly for carrying nothing more than a bullet. He was arrested in October 2021 for carrying a handgun.

In another case, a man on electronic monitoring was arrested in April 2021 after Chicago police found a pellet gun sticking out of a pile of clothes in his apartment during an inspection at his building.

Thompson said the quality of the data combined with its relatively small size does not demand a new blanket policy about how EM is determined.

"It does seem like a scarier time, but the courthouse is doing what they are supposed to do," she said. "They are doing the right thing. They are considering very carefully who belongs in custody and who doesn't. I think they deserve more respect and credit than blame."

Sheriff Tom Dart, who is in charge of administering the EM program and has also expressed concern about the violent backgrounds of some people on EM, acknowledged at a recent town hall meeting that the "vast majority" of people on electronic monitoring, even for violent charges, are not re-offending.

Message takes hold

Public complaining from Chicago police and city leaders over the release of violent offenders is hardly a new dynamic. But experts and longtime observers say Lightfoot has taken the rhetoric to a new high, speaking in sweeping, certain terms about a courthouse that is anything but that.

At her Jan. 4 news conference related to public safety, Lightfoot again made extended comments urging the courts to hold people she referred to as violent offenders in the jail while their cases were pending.

Brown then pleaded with reporters to tell more stories about victims of gun violence, beseeching them to "prick the hearts" of judges so they will hold people in jail.

The message is taking root, with residents at community meetings in Chicago seizing on the narrative that too many violent people are on EM.

Just this week, state Rep. Margaret Croke and state Sen. Sara Feigenholtz said they want to pass a state law that would prevent judges from granting EM for certain violence offenses.

'Research is not there'

Some criminal justice experts consider the focus on electronic monitoring a distraction from the kind of violence reduction work that can be effective in reducing crime.

Nearly every community in Chicago has seen an increase in violence over the past two years, as have many major American cities. Several have set records, evidence to researchers that the forces driving gun violence are widespread.

It all happened during a deadly pandemic that shuttered schools and social services and caused economic stress. Gun sales surged during the pandemic. And policing as a profession has faced sharp, painful criticism in the wake of the killings of Black people by officers.

All of it makes for a complicated yet urgent situation that puts intense pressure on policymakers and elected officials, experts said.

Some have cautioned, however, against prioritizing pretrial detention as a strategy to reduce violence.

In a report released this week, a group of national experts, including a police officer and a judge, argued for bringing both community and law enforcement efforts to bear on the specific locations where violence happens, which in Chicago would mean targeting blocks with high rates of violence for sustained, strategic police deployments and community support.

But unfocused or sweeping decisions on detention are not the goal, said Emily Owens, a University of California, Irvine criminology and economics professor who was part of the group.

"That is something where the evidence-based research is not there," Owens said. "The policy goal is not to incarcerate more people. The policy goal is to reduce violence. It's not clear with pretrial detention that this will cause this next step."

Lightfoot's office, when asked about the mayor's own strategies to stop the gun violence, said Chicago police continue to investigate gun crimes with federal partners and directed the Tribune to the Police Department for more information.

asweeney@chicagotribune.com

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com

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