About 100 people from more than 50 community organizations gathered with public officials and legal experts at Roosevelt University last month to discuss issues of equity and access in the Cook County court system.
The event, put on by Injustice Watch in partnership with the Better Government Association and DataMade, was part of The Circuit, our collaborative journalism project investigating two decades of Cook County court data. The goal was to bring together journalists, practitioners, and people who have been impacted by the courts to surface some of the systemic problems in the court system and discuss possible solutions.
Asked to describe their community’s relationship with the court system in five words or less, attendees wrote words that included “fraught,” “opaque,” and “complicated” on white note cards. Other people highlighted their roles fighting against inequities in the system, with phrases that included “defender from an unjust system” and “supporting the end of cash bail.”
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Two panels of journalists, experts, and legal practitioners discussed how data-driven journalism can shine a light on problems in the court system and help lead to solutions.
Here are some of the takeaways from the evening:
On the problems in the court system
1. Many criminal courtrooms are alienating or dehumanizing spaces for everyday people. Brown University sociology professor Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve mentioned a 2016 incident in which a woman experiencing a mental health crisis arrived for her first court appearance dressed only in a garbage bag after being arrested without clothes. She pointed to this as an instance of the dehumanization of defendants appearing in court by courtroom personnel, police, sheriffs, and presiding judges. “My hope is that the people reporting on (the court system) don’t normalize it,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said. “I would like to see some of the journalists that cover this to step back and say, ‘Did this look normal to me when I started reporting, and who convinced me that this was how it was supposed to be?’”
2. Even when charges are ultimately dropped, arrests can carry heavy collateral consequences. The Better Government Association published an investigation using The Circuit data showing that police have arrested tens of thousands of people on felony drug-possession charges that they knew were never going to stick. “What we found in our story was that more than half of these cases were getting dismissed,” said Jared Rutecki, investigative reporter and data coordinator for the BGA. “But not before people were spending time in jail, before people were losing jobs, before people were being really deeply affected by these matters.”
3. Media coverage of the court system has often relied on anecdotes and sensationalism. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx noted that legislators have often relied on anecdotes and sensational news stories about crime when setting criminal justice policy. “Historically, the criminal justice system has been driven by the anecdote,” she said. “It is largely the one story that drives people to go down to Springfield and change the law to solve for the one thing that happened that scared the bejesus out of people.” Foxx encouraged more news organizations to use data to tell fact-based stories about crime and the courts.
On potential solutions
1. Data collection is a powerful tool for institutional change — but only if it is acted upon. Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. also urged practitioners within the system and activists outside it to use data as a tool for change. But he cautioned that data alone isn’t always enough. “Data provides the opportunity to advocate better, to tell better stories, to make better decisions,” Mitchell said. “But let’s also be clear that data can be overrated. It doesn’t drive change itself; it must be paired with both power and will.”
2. Watchdogs play a critical role in improving access to justice. “Crook County,” Gonzalez Van Cleve’s award-winning study of the Cook County criminal courts, used hundreds of trained court watchers to lay bare the inequities and systemic injustices that people of color face in the criminal legal system. “It’s hard to break culture; culture sometimes doesn’t die,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said. “And so what I find is sometimes shaming it, exposing it to the light, if you will, is sometimes the best way to stop it.”
3. Convening people involved in the legal system in different ways can lead to more understanding. Curtis Ferdinand, a peer reentry specialist learning fellow at the Chicago Torture Justice Center who attended the event, said he appreciated the opportunity to be heard as someone who has been directly impacted by the court system. But Ferdinand said he also gained a greater appreciation for the attorneys and the public officials, such as Foxx and Mitchell, especially when they talked about their support of the SAFE-T Act, the bill passed last year that will end money bond in Illinois. “While we’re going through the system, we have this perception that (lawyers) aren’t as invested as we would like them to be,” Ferdinand said. “I do see that there was a greater level of care than we take into consideration about how they do their job and what issues they care about, what issues they’re fighting for.”