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Watchdog: Quit stalling on Cook County justice system data

Friday, November 17, 2017
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

A prominent Chicago watchdog group is going public with its two-year-long dispute over whether Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans and county Sheriff Tom Dart are sitting on data that's needed to evaluate how well the criminal justice system here is functioning—data it says is routinely available in other jurisdictions.

? In an unusual report, the Civic Federation, which usually sticks to financial matters, says the stall means it's difficult to study questions such as whether a disproportionate share of those arrested under a new no-cash-bond system are quickly getting into trouble and are being rearrested.

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"Significant challenges to obtaining information have included lengthy delays and lack of responsiveness by public officials," says federation President Laurence Msall. "In 2017, no interested party should have to jump through such unreasonable hoops to obtain court and jail statistics."

Dart is pushing back, with a spokeswoman saying he has fully cooperated with the federation, and any problems must be concentrated in Evans' office.

Evans' office says stakeholders now are reviewing how well the new bail system has worked and "has started discussions regarding the public release of the data." The office gave no indication when that might happen.

Sparking the federation's ire is the lack of data on a variety of key items, including the effectiveness of a system announced this summer in which judges have been directed to avoid requiring unaffordable bail.

The watchdog also wants to know why the inmate population at Cook County Jail has dropped a reported 39 percent since 2013.

The drop may be due to revamped Illinois Supreme Court rules on how bond operations should work, or to the new bail system. It might be because police are making fewer low-level drug arrests, the federation says. But the cause isn't clear without full supporting data.

"Although these figures (on declining jail population) appear to show a markedly favorable trend, the unfortunate truth is that they raise more questions then they answer," the report says. And without that data, it's difficult to understand why the number of released felony defendants who either miss court appearances or are arrested on other charges appears to be rising.

"We know the county agencies keep a fair amount of this data behind closed doors," Msall said. "For increased transparency and accountability, the Civic Federation calls on the chief judge and the sheriff to release this information immediately for public review."

Msall told me he's been seeking some of this data "for more than two years." When officials do comply, they often make the federation go through a cumbersome Freedom of Information Act process that can drag on for many weeks.

Other communities, including New York City and Washington, regularly release reports that include such information, he said. Msall noted that operation of the county's criminal justice system costs billions of dollars a year and comprises a third of the county's overall budget of about $5 billion.

Among specific things the federation would like to know, he said, is the demographic breakdown of those now being released without posting cash bail, and how well a new risk-assessment system is going. Msall also objected that requests for even seemingly routine information have to be personally approved by Evans.

Dart's spokeswoman said his office is developing a new interactive website that will allow some data to be accessed without filing a FOIA request.

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