Imagine a world where you are expected to keep track of thousands of accused offenders, charged with everything from drug crimes to murder — not in a jail, but out in the community.
It's what investigators Ken Smith and Will McCray from the Cook County Sheriff's office do every day. They are part of a team of dozens of investigators from the sheriff's office, in charge of tracking down potential offenders in the county's electronic monitoring program.
"We want to give these ladies and gentlemen a chance to succeed in the program," McCray said. "The program is viable, and the program works."
Each of the accused offenders, over 3,000 on any given day, are outfitted with electronic ankle bracelets, designed to alert a monitoring center if they have ventured away from their homes or other designated areas. If that happens, the monitors immediately call them. And if they don't answer, someone has to check out where they are.
The sheriff's office receives, on average, about 850 alerts every day.
NBC 5 accompanied McCray and Smith during a series of calls Friday morning. In one case, an accused offender ventured to the drug store and stayed too long. In another, a woman had turned her bracelet inside out for greater comfort. Still, another suspect had traveled to his building's basement laundry room, beyond the perimeter of where he was supposed to be.
"For the most part, all of our participants on the program, they cooperate," McCray said. "Because they want to get off the program, get off of house arrest, and get on with their lives."
If an explanation is deemed acceptable, the suspect will often get off with a written warning. If they have to be tracked down, it can mean a return to Cook County Jail.
The Sheriff's Office says of those 850 alerts, roughly 600 are usually deemed genuine. On average, ten of those will result in a violation which can merit a return to custody.
"We declare them AWOL, and we have a separate fugitive unit that will go out and look for them," McCray said. "And they are very successful — they bring them back."
Electronic monitoring has become a focus in recent weeks as Chicago struggles with an uptick in violent incidents including a rash of fatal shootings. Chicago Police Supt. David Brown has repeatedly singled the program out as a dangerous initiative which he contends puts too many violent offenders on the street.
"The superintendent is entitled to his point of view," Chief Judge Timothy Evans told NBC 5 Friday. "The fact that somebody has been arrested for something, does not mean they are guilty of it."
Evans argued that 85% of those who are released pre-trial will end up doing nothing to cause a rearrest before their trial takes place. And that imprisonment should be the exception, rather than the norm.
"The people arrested by his officers are still entitled to a trial," Evans said. "Only those who are a clear and present danger are the ones who should be held."
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart also defends the electronic monitoring program which his office oversees, and argues there are no concrete examples of violators who have contributed to the recent violence. That said, he complains there are accused violent offenders in the program who he believes should still be kept in custody.
But with efforts to decrowd Cook County Jail during the coronavirus pandemic, those numbers have only increased.
In July of 2016, only 19 accused murderers were out on electronic monitoring. This week, there were 43. Four years ago, there were 164 people on EM accused of unlawful use of a weapon. As of Monday, there were 500.
In that same July week in 2016, only nine accused of being armed habitual criminals were out in the community on electronic bracelets. This week, there were 172.
Still, preliminary results of a study for the Chief Judge's office indicate the true violations of the electronic monitoring program are the exception rather than the rule.
That study looked at 2,745 individuals on electronic monitoring in April of this year. Of those, 251, about 9%, ended up back in jail by late June. Of those, 128 stayed in custody, 40 left custody for various reasons and 83 were returned to the EM program.
In Cook County's adult probation department, of 1,789 under electronic monitoring, 179 went back to jail, about 10%.
Evans argues the program does exactly what it is supposed to do — allow the accused to wait for their day in court without being punished in the process.
"This is not the period where accountability is to take place," he said. "Only those who are considered a clear and present danger are the ones who should be held."
Back on the West Side, standing outside the home of a man who set off alarms when he ventured onto his porch to play with his nephews, McCray and Smith said they believe most suspects they encounter during enforcement visits want to do the right thing.
"The program works," Smith said. "We're going to have people who slip through the cracks, but the program works."