Criminal justice reform

ankle monitor

Cleve Heidelberg, who was released after 47 years in prison, wore an ankle monitor similar to this one, but his monitor was considered pre-trial because his conviction had been vacated so there was no charge to him. (PHOTO BY CLARE HOWARD)

Michelle Alexander has called some uses of electronic ankle monitors the newest Jim Crow and “e-carceration.” The cost of some monitors can be $300 a month, and people ordered to wear a monitor can easily fall into arrears and face jail for nonpayment, she has written.

Her warnings are valid in many instances, but in Peoria, county officials believe the ankle monitor program works well. Peoria County rents two types of electronic ankle monitors from a private corporation, SCRAM Systems of Illinois. During an average year, 40 to 50 people in Peoria County wear ankle monitors due to a court order.

One type of ankle monitor transmits location just like a cell phone. Another type of monitor detects alcohol consumption. A judge determines who wears a monitor and how the rental fee is paid. Costs range from $3.50 a day to $7 a day. The county covers its costs primarily through grants, and a judge determines if and how much individuals must reimburse. The county benefits financially by reducing costs associated with incarceration.

Daniel Hunt, director of probation and court services for Peoria County, said ankle monitors were being used in Tazewell County when he worked there, and when he accepted a job with Peoria County in 2011, he started the program here.

“I’m supportive of electronic monitoring. It’s a great technology, but it’s not fun,” he said, noting that staff in probation has oversight for electronic reports generated by the monitors 24 hours a day seven days a week.

“We believe there is qualitative and quantitative benefit to the community. People can maintain employment, have contact with family and get treatment for addiction,” Hunt said.

Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell said he generally favors alternatives to incarceration but when private vendors are involved, extra oversight and analysis is needed.

Asbell favors a systemwide analysis of costs, support programs and alternatives. He cited a study of service providers from the city, county, police, hospital emergency rooms and social service agencies that identified the top 17 individuals using these resources in Peoria in 2017 and found the cost for these 17 people was $3.2 million for one year. A less expensive alternative is providing individual case managers, he said. When someone is released from jail, the case manager makes sure there is adequate housing, health care and food assistance.

“These alternative programs cost pennies on the dollar,” he said. “You save money by spending on these alternative programs. Incarceration is a billion-dollar industry in the United States.”

To find abuses in the system, follow the money, he said.

“When we look at alternatives to incarceration, we need to move forward cautiously. Some of these alternative sentences can end up being additive sentences. I’m concerned if the net is widened,” he said, especially if there is nonpayment of fines and fees and an individual is re-arrested. “Ferguson was not because of Michael Brown but because of years of over policing.”

There was a racial caste system in Ferguson. The police were Caucasian; the community was poor and primarily African American.

“When municipalities use fines and fees for revenue, anger and divide grow and the system fails,” Asbell said.

He would like to find funding for a “SWAP” program, a sheriff’s work assistance program, in which people can avoid incarceration in exchange for assignment to a work crew that enables them to go home each night and show up for work during the day. His SWAP program would perform jobs ranging from lawn maintenance on municipal property and cleaning up graffiti to shoveling driveways and sidewalks for indigent seniors.

Some people go through an expungement process to get criminal convictions removed from their records so they can qualify for jobs, but then they are unable to pay the fee for expungement. Asbell would like to allow them to work off the fee in his SWAP program.

“Punishment for crime is justifiable, but I believe in rehabilitation. If we focus on crime prevention, we could save millions,” he said. “If there is a poster child for the need to reform, it is Jason Spyres.”

Spyres had been sentenced to 30 years in prison for a non-violent marijuana conviction. He was released after 15 years, graduated from Illinois Central College and is now at Stanford University on a full scholarship. When he was released, he owed $250,000 in fines and fees.

“When we give these sentences, it’s a scarlet letter on someone’s forehead,” Asbell said, explaining the barriers and burdens that hold people back for the rest of their lives. “It’s a life sentence.”

The 1980s movement to be tougher on crime resulted in a tsunami of anger, broken families, unemployment, fear and oppression.

At one time, the population of the Peoria County jail was 500, and under Asbell, the population has been reduced to 260, financially benefitting Peoria County.

“At one time, the jail was used for a dump for those with mental illnesses and addictions,” Asbell said. “Being proactive with alternative options addresses the root issues. Case management would help. We don’t want those cases ending up here.”

Asbell said he believes in accountability but he has seen what happens when people are born into poverty, broken families and addiction. He advocates a holistic approach to problems and that involves new alternative programs.

“We need to lock up only those people we are afraid of, not the ones we’re angry at,” he said. “We need to be tough on crime by attacking the root causes of crime.”

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