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A mosaic of justice, Cook County-style

Thursday, October 03, 2013
Chicago Tribune
by Eric Zorn

This is a picture worth a thousand curse words. It’s the image of the Cook County Circuit Court’s writ of habeas corpus in a case involving alleged armed robber Ladaris Butler, 21, and it reveals, at a glance, just how archaic and sclerotic our local criminal justice system has become.

A writ of habeas corpus is a document in which a judge orders a jailer — sometimes it’s a prison warden — to produce a defendant on a certain date.

In this instance, underneath all the stamps, scribbles, arrows and X’s added later, it’s an order by Cook County Judge Gloria Chevere that Butler be brought from the county jail at 26th Street and California Avenue about 17 miles south to the branch court at 727 E. 111th St. on the morning of April 23, 2012.

Butler had been locked up since Nov. 24, 2011, when he was charged with armed robbery after he and another man allegedly held up three victims on the 6700 block of South Peoria Street and relieved them of a cell phone and cash.

But this court appearance was only indirectly about that.

You see, at the time of his arrest, Butler was on probation after he’d pleaded guilty in September, 2011, to aggravated assault against a police officer and possession of marijuana, and the document pictured here deals with the related probation-violation proceeding.

The document has gone back and forth to court with Butler 18 times by the count of Cara Smith, chief of policy and communications for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, whose office brought it to my attention and interpreted it for me.

Each time, evidently, nothing happened in court except that the old date on the writ was crossed out and a new date was entered on whatever blank space remained on the page, sometimes with initials or asterisks or shorthand (“OOC” means “order of the court”).

Lately, to help out the poor jail staffers tasked with deciphering what looks like a child’s art project, dates have been marked with a yellow highlighting pen and emphasized with arrows.

Smith said that this writ from hell isn’t typical. It’s a particularly bizarre example of what happens when you have a system that’s stuck in the 20th century because vintage computer systems at either end can’t talk to one another.

If busy jail staffers overlook or misunderstand the most recent hen scratch — here, in the upper right quadrant, the note that Butler’s next court date on the probation violation is Wednesday — then trials can be further delayed or, as we’ve seen, prisoners can be mistakenly released.

“A paper-based criminal justice system inhibits effective communication, leads to errors, jeopardizes public safety and costs the citizens,” Dart wrote in a recent letter to the county board and other top officials in which he called for immediate electronic upgrades and attached Butler’s writ as Exhibit A.

“We can no longer tolerate this antiquated and inefficient system.” 

Thursday, I asked Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle for her reaction to this image. “There is no doubt that the elimination of the paper-driven process will lead to enhanced public safety,” she responded in a statement. “We are collectively faced with the problems related to inconsistent data collection, outdated applications to hold that data, and the failure of most of those systems to communicate with one another.”

But even if Butler’s odyssey were neatly entered on a legible, Web-based spreadsheet program, it would still constitute evidence of dismaying inefficiency — the costly shuttling of prisoners back and forth for meaningless status hearings and the preposterous delays in the dispensation of routine justice.

One look at this 81/2-by-11-inch mess and you understand why Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride intervened last month to call for a summit including such leading county officials as Dart, Preckwinkle and Chief Judge Timothy Evans as well as outside experts.

Their charge: to audit and streamline how Cook County deals with crime and punishment. In the room when they meet ought to be a poster-size blow-up of Ladaris Butler’s writ, and above it a sign that reads “No more!”

UPDATE: After my filing deadline, Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown's spokeswoman Jalyne Strong-Shaw and Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans responded in writing to my request for comment.

From the office of Dorothy Brown: For almost 13 years, Clerk Brown has been working to improve the processes of integrated criminal justice and information sharing among criminal justice agencies through the Cook County Integrated Criminal Justice Information System (CCICJIS) Committee that she championed to be established from the time she took Office in 2000. Unfortunately, over the years, as Clerk Brown pushed to get funding and the cooperation of all of the stakeholders, including the Sheriff’s Office, in order to proceed with the implementation of an electronic, integrated criminal justice information system, she has continually met with resistance or disinterest. Issues involving “paperwork problems,” including carbon paper, in the criminal justice system would have been eliminated years ago if all of the agencies had gotten onboard with the Strategic Plan and the Detailed Plan of Action (see here & here), which were produced by CCICJIS in 2003 and 2006 respectively. Clerk Brown pointed out these facts in a letter she wrote to Sheriff Tom Dart on Sept. 27, 2013, ( pdf ) in which she, once more, appealed to him for his assistance and collaboration on the CCICJIS Project Management Team.

Now that Sheriff Dart appears to understand the merits of justice agencies being able to electronically share information, and President Preckwinkle is allocating funds and staff to support the effort, Clerk Brown is eager to complete the process of a fully integrated criminal justice information system that she set in motion years ago. Regarding the document that you sent, please note that this document is a writ of habeas corpus (writ), which is prepared at the request of the State’s Attorney to have an inmate, ALREADY IN JAIL for one case, brought to court to appear on a different case.

Therefore, when the sheriff is moving a defendant with a WRIT, the sheriff knows that the person is to be returned to custody. In some instances, the State’s Attorney requests the Clerk’s Office to prepare a new writ for each new court date, or the State’s Attorney prepares a Transportation Order requesting that a prisoner be prepared for the next court date. In the case of this document, the Clerk’s Office was neither requested to prepare a new writ nor did the State’s Attorney prepare a Transportation Order, therefore, a clerk or the judge was forced to write each new court date on the original writ of habeas corpus.

It is odd that the Sheriff would forward you this document as an example of the possible reason why he has released inmates in error because this is not the document used on a daily basis to indicate if an inmate is to be released or detained. This document means that the inmate is definitely in jail, and the sheriff would know that the inmate is definitely to be detained. Either a Prisoner Data Sheet or Addendum Order indicate whether an inmate should be released or detained, and both of these documents are prepared on the Clerk’s Office’s computer system.

Please note that information is written on the prisoner data sheet only because the sheriff does not generally have time to wait until the court clerk can data-enter the information). The Clerk’s Office’s criminal information data is electronic. If the Sheriff would implement a computer system to receive this data, the Clerk’s Office would gladly transmit it electronically to the Sheriff’s Office. Nonetheless, Clerk Brown continues to be committed to working with the Sheriff and all of the heads of criminal justice agencies to implement an integrated criminal justice information system. For more information about Clerk Brown’s extensive work with CCICJIS, please review the a succession of letters written to the sheriff seeking his involvement in creating an integrated criminal justice information system over the years.

Here is Sheriff Tom Dart's letter of Sept. 19 to various county officials:

The Cook County Department of Corrections processes nearly 78,000 people through the jail each year and moves 1200 people to and from court each day. This is all done by paper, with DOC officers interpreting handwritten orders to decipher who should remain in custody and who should be released.

Monday’s wrongful release once again demonstrates that a paper based criminal justice system inhibits effective communication, leading to errors, jeopardizes public safety and costs the citizens of Cook County.

In 2013 with the technology available to us, this is unacceptable. I am asking that the County Board and other stakeholder agencies make an automated criminal justice information system an immediate reality. I applaud Commissioner Fritchey for his February resolution restarting the Cook County Integrated Criminal Justice Information Systems Committee.

However, simply forming a committee is not enough. Until that system is in place, we run the risk of a piece of paper getting lost in the shuffle and dangerous people walking the streets. As leaders, it is incumbent on us to protect the public from the most dangerous.

The public deserves better from the criminal justice system.

We must take meaningful action now to ensure that the release of a potentially dangerous offender is not the result of a misplaced piece of paper. I urge you all to support Commissioner Fritchey’s effort and call this item out of the Technology Committee in order to come up with an immediate viable solution. We can no longer tolerate this inefficient and antiquated system. The time for excuses and delay is over.

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