Year in review: Injustice Watch’s best reporting in 2020

Illustration by Veronica Martinez for The Circuit

Like many of you, we’re still unpacking the past 12 months.

The coronavirus pandemic upended what we expected to be a wild year before 2020 even began: Dozens of Cook County judges were preparing to run for retention while others fought for vacant seats on the bench; the consent decree governing reforms at the Chicago Police Department was entering its second year; and the presidential election was already dominating the headlines.

When the pandemic hit, Injustice Watch pivoted accordingly and began investigating how Covid-19 impacted the lives of people behind bars. And when the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked an unprecedented uprising against police violence and racism, we made sure to provide our readers with valuable context about the police defunding debate and perspectives from Black youth pushing for racial justice — while also focusing on judges, juveniles with lengthy prison terms, potential wrongful convictions, and other criminal justice issues we’ve always covered.

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We hope to continue covering these critical issues in 2021. But before we escape 2020, we wanted to spotlight the stories we’ve published this year that have had the biggest impact and resonated the most with our readers.

Covid in custody

Cynthia McDonald

Photo by Davon Clark

Cynthia McDonald, holding a portrait of her son, Joseph Wilson. Wilson died this April after contracting Covid-19 while he was in custody at the Stateville Correctional Center. Photo by Davon Clark.

The Cook County Jail became a coronavirus transmission hotspot this spring. Our reporting team began tracking Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths among people incarcerated at the jail. We also focused our reporting on Illinois’ growing population of older inmates, a group that faces higher risks of death or serious complications if infected by the virus but has seen little reprieve through discretionary powers that the Illinois Department of Corrections can use to shorten prison terms.

The state corrections department’s Covid-19 response has faced heavy criticism from inmates, their loved ones, and legal advocates. In May, we reported that prison officials had reopened a decrepit unit at the Stateville Correctional Center to house incarcerated people who tested positive for Covid-19, making it more difficult for family members to communicate with those who had fallen ill. By Dec., 13 of the more than 50 prisoners who died after testing positive for the virus had been incarcerated at Stateville, the most deaths tied to any Illinois facility. The corrections department insists that it has protocols for notifying the loved ones of incarcerated people when inmates fall sick. But Injustice Watch interviewed two mothers whose sons were infected by Covid-19 who said that prison officials kept them in the dark as their sons were hospitalized, and later died, after testing positive for Covid-19.

The Uprisings

Miracle Boyd, an organizer of GoodKids MadCity in Chicago, addresses participants to kick off GKMC’s Love March in the south side’s Woodlawn neighborhood, Saturday, July 11, 2020. Photo by Davon Clark.

As thousands gathered in the streets to protest against police violence, Injustice Watch turned its attention to how the criminal justice system handled protesters arrested in Chicago, many of whom alleged that cops denied them access to attorneys while they languished in police lockups.

As chants of “defund the police” grew louder, we took a hard look at police spending in Chicago and found that the city spent three times more on cops per capita in 2020 than it did in 1964. And when nearby Kenosha, Wi., became the movement’s flashpoint at the end of the summer after a Kenosha cop shot Jacob Blake, we explored how Black residents in the small city and across Wisconsin have suffered institutional racism and marginalization for decades. We also documented how the uprisings spurred a reckoning at Latin School of Chicago, a private high school where students of color said a culture of racism and xenophobia had thrived.

We also took a step back from reporting on the uprisings to let the people on the ground tell their own stories. Our first-person multimedia series, “Essential Work,” featured essays and audio produced by Black youth organizers who explained in their own words why they are part of the movement.

Cook County judicial elections

Candidates for the Illinois Supreme Court (L to R), Daniel Epstein, Appellate Judge Jesse Reyes, Appellate Judge Nathaniel Howse and Appellate Judge Margaret McBride, at a candidates forum on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. Photo by Davon Clark.

Since its founding in 2015, Injustice Watch has investigated judges in Cook County and helped voters navigate the judicial election process. This year was no different.

In March, dozens of candidates vied for one of the 37 vacant judicial seats in Cook County’s judicial primaries. Our reporting team compiled a comprehensive judicial primary voting guide, along with stories on candidates with troubling legal records. We also reported on sham candidates who have repeatedly made unsuccessful bids for the bench and the high stakes race for the open seat on the Illinois Supreme Court previously held by the state’s only Black justice.

And one month ahead of the November elections, when more than 60 Cook County judges stood retention, Injustice Watch released its third judicial retention election voting guide. Our reporters also investigated some of those judges’ records and kept tabs on the political battle behind Judge Michael Toomin’s race. In the end, our reporting found that a greater share of Cook County voters participated in this year’s judicial elections than in any election over the past three decades.

This was also a record year for our judicial retention guide, which garnered nearly 250,000 visitors online leading up to election day on Nov. 3. To share the guide with the people most directly impacted by judges, we partnered with the South Side Weekly to send 1,000 print versions of the guide to detainees at Cook County Jail. But two weeks after Injustice Watch sent the guide to the jail, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office informed us that the jail’s mailroom staff had mistakenly classified the guides as contraband and sent them all back. Ultimately, our research found that a greater share of Cook County voters participated in this year’s judicial elections than in the last three decades.

The Circuit

A judge sits on the bench surrounded by traffic barriers

Illustration by Veronica Martinez for The Circuit

This year we launched The Circuit, an unprecedented journalism collaboration with our partners from Better Government Association, The Chicago Reporter and Datamade examining roughly two decades of Cook County criminal court data. The team of reporters, designers, and data analysts created a visual storytelling tool that allows readers to explore the changes in felony and misdemeanor charges brought against individuals, largely people of color, in Cook County since 2000.

Reporters also dug into the data and found two judges whom attorneys repeatedly avoided trying cases before. Prosecutors repeatedly blocked Cook County Judge James B. Linn from hearing cases involving sex-related charges after he overturned a jury verdict and showed leniency to a man accused of sexually assaulting children. Another former judge with a history of verbal outbursts from the bench and a record of sending probation violators to prison was bounced from more cases than any other judge at the county’s main criminal courthouse. Stay tuned for more from The Circuit, as we continue to report on countless lives touched by Cook County’s criminal justice system.