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While Illinois has made some progress in decreasing incarceration, criminal justice reformers say “e-carceration,” or house arrest, can be harmful, too.


Sechauan Marsh
photo by Davon Clark

Sechuan Marsh says he had been on probation for aggravated theft for two years when his probation officer assigned him to attend a program near 51st and Calumet.


The 20-year-old Back of the Yards native balked at the idea.


“I wouldn’t feel safe going there. I know I’m not supposed to be in that area,” Marsh says.


Marsh says he doesn’t like walking around or taking the bus for safety reasons; he’s been shot three times in the last two years. In order to get to his carpentry program at Precious Blood Ministry, a local church that hosts youth and community-focused programs, his sister gets him an Uber, his father drops him off, or he has someone from his program pick him up.


So Marsh missed his session at 51st and Calumet, which was a probation violation—and this summer, a judge placed him on house arrest, known in the justice system as “electronic monitoring.”


He was unable to leave his home—not even to sit on his porch or take out the garbage—except to visit Precious Blood Ministry, where he’s completing a high school degree program. Getting permission to step outside these boundaries required calling his probation officer.


“I feel like it’s not right, [to] not even be able to step on the porch to get some air. I have to sit in the hallway and look outside,” he says. “I’m just trying to finish and stay out of trouble.”


The use of electronic monitoring devices in the United States for people awaiting their trials, on probation or on parole has skyrocketed in the past 10 years. The number of Americans monitored with ankle bracelets and other electronic tracking devices rose nearly 140 percent between 2005 and 2015, according to a 2015 Pew survey. In Cook County as of September 2018, over 3,000 individuals are in electronic monitoring, according to representatives of the Cook County Sheriff’s office and the Office of the Chief Judge. The majority are awaiting trial, while a smaller group is on probation, like Marsh. (There are also individuals on electronic monitoring for parole, which is managed by the Illinois Department of Corrections.)


“People often think that people on electronic monitoring can go about their regular lives, but not that they are actually incarcerated in their own homes and have very limited movement. It’s very destructive and harmful,” says Sharlyn Grace, co-executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, a group that bails people out of jail and fights against pretrial incarceration.


“These are not ‘alternatives to,’ but rather, ‘alternative forms of’ incarceration, and they often are also accompanied by shifting costs of incarceration onto criminalized individuals and their families,” she says.


Grace says that if electronic monitoring exists, it should be used only for people who have serious charges.


“If someone has to be on electronic monitoring [prior to a trial], it is someone who would absolutely otherwise be in the jail. But a lot of times it’s people who would and should absolutely be free,” she says. “That said, I think it applies to all contexts. People should be under the least amount of supervision required as both a moral mandate and a general legal principle.”


Criminal justice reform advocates and abolitionists in Cook County want a system overhaul, according to Malcolm Rich, executive director of Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, a social impact research and advocacy organization. “The idea is to eliminate electronic monitoring. And if we can’t eliminate electronic monitoring, we need to establish benchmarks and criteria that are fair and are uniform,” Rich says.


He stresses the impact of having such limited movement: “You’ve got people who can’t go out on their porch without people showing up to arrest them for felony escape. So suddenly you’ve got an additional felony on your record.”


In July, over 20 local and national organizations participated in  Challenging E-Carceration, the first-ever local convening on the impact of electronic monitoring in the criminal legal and immigration detention systems. The conference, held at the University of Chicago, focused on the experiences of people who have been on electronic monitoring and strategies for resisting and rolling back its growth.


Meanwhile, the Chicago Community Bond Fund issued a report and video last year documenting the impact of pretrial electronic monitoring. The group consulted upon guidelines for respecting the rights of people on electronic monitoring, released by the Center for Media Justice’s Challenging E-Carceration national campaign last year.


“We will continue to do education about the realities of EM [electronic monitoring] and why it should be extremely limited and ultimately eliminated,” says Grace. “We will support policy proposals that seek to increase rights for people on EM (such as movement permission) or limit its application (which means moving people from EM to freedom).”


Marsh says he has mixed feelings about the electronic monitoring: “I feel like I’m being controlled, but it’s better than jail,” he says, which is where he’d be for violating probation if he wasn’t eligible for house arrest.


Orlando Mayorga, Marsh’s case manager at Precious Blood Ministry, sees firsthand the impact electronic monitoring has on young people in the neighborhood.  He says the young people he works with can’t be productive on electronic monitoring and in the summer, they’re missing out on a lot of opportunities by being stuck at home.


“A conflict arises in me. I would much rather have a person out here than in [jail],” he says. “But then I look at the frustration: There’s only so much TV you can watch, only so many people you can call before you get bored.”


While Mayorga does not advocate for electronic monitoring, he has found a way to utilize the program to have larger conversations with the young people he works with who would otherwise be held in Cook County Jail, cut off from their communities.


“It at least provides a space where we can talk about the system,” Mayorga says. “I tell my youth, ‘This is the way the system works, they consider you a dangerous youth. Do you feel you’re a dangerous youth?’” Mayorga hopes these questions allow them to reflect on their experiences and the ways the criminal justice system falls short.


Marsh finished his stint on house arrest on September 3 and continues to work toward his degree. When asked about his next steps post-electronic monitoring, Marsh says he is just happy that he is off house arrest and hopes to be able to get a job while he finishes school.


This story was produced by City Bureau, a Woodlawn-based civic journalism lab. Find out more and get involved at http://www.citybureau.org.

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