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The Laquan McDonald Case and the Need for Court Reform
Enhancing the fairness, effectiveness, and independence of the courts are critical goals.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Chicago Appleseed Fund For Justice
by Malcolm Rich

The police shooting death of Laquan McDonald has thrust Chicago into the national spotlight. Chicagoans and observers nationwide are expressing serious doubts about the transparency and accountability--and ultimately, the fairness and effectiveness-of our criminal justice system. One thing is clear: this tragic loss of life, and city officials' wholly inadequate responses to it, is the product of multiple systemic failures. To prevent such human catastrophes in the future, we must look at the criminal justice system as a whole. We need to see how system is failing the community, and also to understand what kind of solutions are needed.

The Collaboration for Justice--the joint research and advocacy effort of Chicago Appleseed and the Chicago Council of Lawyers--is dedicated to making courts more effective and more fair. Maintaining the independence of the court system is critical to these efforts. Our courts play a vital role in checking the abuse of power. But to do so effectively, courts must operate in a transparent and evidence-based manner. This enables the community to see what is working and what is not working. It allows us to have the wherewithal and the support to bring about necessary court reforms, while at the same time recognizing and praising strengths.

Here at the Chicago Appleseed and the Chicago Council of Lawyers, we are aiming to bring Cook County Courts into a new era. We seek to introduce system-wide changes that enable the Courts to function fairly and effectively, and to successfully handle the burgeoning array of social problems they are confronted with every day. In particular, we are addressing two broad areas of concern that the Laquan McDonald case has brought to light: 1) the need for a more fair and equal court system, and 2) the need for a more independent and accountable court system.

The changes we are supporting to bring about a fair and equal court system include:

  • Expanding the Access to Community Treatment approach to criminal justice, which diverts individuals with criminal records into community-based treatment, thus breaking the cycle of arrest to penitentiary.
  • Investing in probation services that enable people to stay out of jail, rather than be punished when they have any level of relapse.
  • Eliminating cash bond so that defendants not deemed a risk to society can stay out of jail, while those who do pose a threat remain behind bars, pending trial.
  • Preventing the imposition of excessive court costs, fines, and fees, particularly when litigants are indigent and when these "taxes" are not related to the case at hand.
  • Reducing the length of pretrial detention by enabling the Chicago Police Department to conduct field testing of drug-related evidence.
  • Strengthening the funding of our court system and encouraging public/private partnerships to invest in promising innovations for the future.
  • Improving our family law courts by providing to all persons equally the effective and efficient determination of child support, visitation, and related issues.

The changes we are supporting to bring about an independent and accountable court system include:

  • Increasing accountability by ensuring that all court proceedings are recorded with court reporters or court recording equipment.
  • Enhancing the quality of the court system by providing for electronic survey and interview-based evaluations of judges and other court participants that are not tied to the retention election system, and which identify specific strengths, weaknesses, and improvement plans.
  • Supporting independent-minded judges who step up to make courageous decisions in an effort to protect all members of society.
  • Providing for data-driven decision-making by the courts by expanding the use of accurate data collection and analysis by trained and certified court administrators.

Our Cook County courts face a monumental challenge. They must deal with huge numbers of people who look to the courts for fair and effective adjudication. In addition, at a time when our social safety net is shredded by budget cuts, our community increasingly looks to the courts to handle a wide range of social ills and community injustices. We must provide our court system with the resources and attention it needs and deserves. It remains our check against the abuse of power; it has become our community problem solver. We must ensure that our court system succeeds. And we must do all we can to prevent the failures of the justice system that the Laquan McDonald case so disturbingly illustrates.


Malcolm Rich is the Executive Director of the Collaboration for Justice.

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