Year in Review: Highlights from Injustice Watch’s work in 2022

A collage of photos and illustrations. From top left: Illustration of a male judge standing over a woman looking away, photo of a woman in a white shirt looking into the camera, illustration of a judge with paper airplanes that read 'reversed' flying at him, photo of an older man in a kitchen handing his wife a carton of milk, illustration that says 'Check your judges' with hands checking boxes next to people's faces, photo of two people on a panel talking into microphones.

At Injustice Watch, our small but mighty team has been busy in 2022, reporting and producing two judicial election guides; investigating abuses of power by judges, prosecutors, and police; and working to bring more transparency and accountability to the Cook County court system.

Here’s a look at our work this year by the numbers:

Investigations that expose, influence and inform. Emailed directly to you.

›› We partnered with 22 local news organizations to co-report or co-publish our work, including the Chicago Tribune, WBEZ, Block Club Chicago, La Raza, the Austin Weekly News and many others.

›› We hosted or attended more than 30 community events to talk with people about our reporting, understand the information needs of our audience, and provide resources to people who are most directly affected by the topics we cover.

›› We reached people in all 77 Chicago neighborhoods and more than half of the Cook County suburbs with our public-service journalism.

›› We translated 10 stories and both of our judicial election guides into Spanish and partnered with Spanish-language publications to reach non-English-speaking communities.

But the impact of public-service journalism can’t just be told through numbers. Below are highlights of some of our best work from 2022.

#CheckYourJudges

Illustrated photos of judges with hands filling out check boxes and the words Check Your Judges

This year Injustice Watch published two comprehensive, nonpartisan judicial election guides to help voters make informed decisions about the dozens of judicial candidates on the ballot each election. Our #CheckYourJudges guides for the primary and general elections were published in English and Spanish and used by as many as half of all voters in Cook County. We distributed more than 300,000 copies of our guide throughout Chicago and the suburbs and also sent more than 7,000 copies of the guides to voters in the Cook County jail. We partnered with other newsrooms, community organizations, faith-based groups, and libraries to get guides into the hands of voters who are most directly affected by the court system.

We also wrote dozens of stories in the lead up to the elections, providing information about how judicial elections work and digging into some of the candidates and judges who were on the ballot. Those included a look at one former judge’s attempt to get back on the bench, allegations of misconduct against a former prosecutor who had been appointed judge, concerns about one judicial candidate’s work as a lawyer representing several small suburbs, and a criminal court judge whose decisions had been reversed more than 40 times in six years. We also wrote explainers about how judicial elections work, why some sitting judges were running for new seats, why sitting judges are rarely voted out of office, and why there were so few candidates for open seats in this year’s primary election.

Aging in the Shadows

An elderly man with one amputated leg wheels himself on a wheelchair past a dining room table.

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Cipriano, 70, moves through the home he shares with his wife, Lilia, in Chicago on March 24, 2022. They are both undocumented and were forced out of the basement apartment they had lived in for 14 years at the same time that Cipriano’s health deteriorated and his leg was amputated.

We partnered with the Chicago Tribune to explore the challenges facing a growing but under-reported-on population: aging undocumented immigrants. Injustice Watch reporter Carlos Ballesteros and the Tribune’s Laura Rodriguez Presa spent months building trust with the people who were featured in their stories and provided a nuanced and human-centered picture of the barriers to accessing healthcare and affordable housing. The series also highlighted the resilience of undocumented people and their communities in the face of these challenges.

An important part of this project was ensuring our work reached those who are most directly affected by these issues. Injustice Watch and the Tribune hosted two panel discussions with a range of experts related to the topic, one in English and one in Spanish. We also created a resource guide for aging undocumented immigrants, which we printed and handed out (along with copies of our story, free coffee, and pastries) in Little Village. Residents told our reporters about the difficulties that they face in accessing resources for the older adults in their lives. Carlos and Laura received the “Breaking Barriers Award” from the Institute for Nonprofit News for their work on this series. The judges said their work “is what all journalists in this country should strive for. When people say journalism is dying, this example of journalism is what all should look for to save it and do better.”

Investigations that hold power to account

Illustration of a silhouette with a scene of a man getting stabbed outside his truck. In the background are pages of U visa denials.

Last December, we published an investigation into SCRAM, a little-known alcohol monitoring device that judges sometimes assign as a condition of probation or family visitation. The device uses sweat vapors on a person’s skin to monitor their blood alcohol level every 30 minutes and ensure their compliance with orders not to drink alcohol. This year, senior reporter Maya Dukmasova learned that the company that provides SCRAM devices in Cook County had been operating without a contract for more than 18 months and followed the case of one woman who was assigned to the device even though the charges she faced had nothing to do with alcohol. In response to our reporting, the office of Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans issued a new request for proposals and the Cook County Board of Commissioners introduced a resolution to conduct an audit of the Cook County Circuit Court’s continued use of SCRAM alcohol-monitoring devices.

In May, a group of juvenile justice experts sent Evans their final report about the use of room confinement at the county’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. The “blue ribbon” committee, which Evans convened last year, found that children and teenagers at the juvenile jail are routinely locked in their rooms for 13 hours every day — and jail staff often punish them with additional confinement. Evans did not release the report for three months — until Injustice Watch obtained a copy and began asking his office questions about it. In August, his office announced a new committee to implement some of the recommendations. The changes include limiting the amount of time that youths can be confined to their rooms for disciplinary reasons, pushing bedtime later so youths spend less time in their rooms at night, and implementing more trauma-informed programming and services.

Earlier this month we published an investigation into the Chicago Police Department’s denial of hundreds of U visa certification requests from undocumented crime victims. The U visa allows undocumented immigrants who are victims of certain crimes to apply for legal status. But first, they have to get certification from a law enforcement agency verifying that they are a victim of a qualifying crime and have been helpful to investigators. Chicago police get hundreds of such requests per year — and in recent months, they have denied as many as half of them, often in ways that contradict federal and state law. The two police sergeants who issued many of the denials, John Poulos and Brandon Ternand, fatally shot civilians and had serious questions raised about their credibility. Police officials tried to fire them years ago — but they kept their jobs. After our investigation was published, a majority of the Chicago City Council signed on to two measures — one that would require the police department to provide regular reports to the city council on U visa applications and denials and another calling for hearings into the departments’ handling of U visa certification requests. Both measures are likely to get voted on next year.

Using data to investigate gun-possession arrests

A bald Black man with a black polo shirt and blue sweatshirt looks into the camera.

Olivia Obineme for Injustice Watch.

South Shore resident Doryion Booker at South Shore Cultural Center, Monday, May 23, 2022. Booker was arrested in 2020 on charges of unlawful use of a weapon and indicted by a Cook County grand jury.

As part of The Circuit, our collaborative investigation into the Cook County Circuit Court using two decades of data, reporter Josh McGhee looked at a sudden and unexplained shift in how the state’s attorney’s office prosecuted gun-possession arrests. Practically overnight in August 2015, prosecutors started bringing more than 95% of felony gun-possession cases through grand juries, which are secret proceedings where the defendant is not allowed. After the shift, more people started pleading guilty to gun-possession charges. Advocates said it could be because the grand jury process makes it more difficult for defense attorneys to assess the evidence against their client and advise them to take their case to trial.

The shift took place as the number of gun possession arrests in Chicago jumped significantly — many of them stemming from traffic stops by Chicago Police, according to data we analyzed. In partnership with Block Club Chicago, we also looked at the data on traffic stops that Chicago Police report to the state and found that they were vastly underreporting the number of stops where a gun is found and someone is arrested. The underreported stops suggest that Black people are stopped at even more disproportionate rates than the department is reporting to state regulators.

We also brought together nearly 100 people from 50 different community organizations around Chicago for a community conversation about issues of equity and access in the Cook County Circuit Court. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. and other experts joined us to discuss how data-driven journalism can expose problems within the courts and help communities and practitioners find solutions. The event was put on in partnership with the Better Government Association and DataMade.

Tracking evictions since the pandemic

For months, we’ve been working with the office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County to get updated data on eviction filings since the beginning of 2020. In July, housing reporter Grace Asiegbu wrote about why this data is so important to show the real impact of the pandemic eviction moratorium and what has happened with eviction filings and orders in Cook County since it was lifted last year. Grace also created a guide to Cook County eviction court to help people who might be facing eviction understand the process and the resources available to them. We’re continuing to build our housing beat and have been meeting with advocates and experts to better understand the gaps in housing coverage in Chicago.

Work by our reporting residents

Grant Omohundro

Graduates from the Prison and Neighborhood Arts/Education Project and Northeastern Illinois University’s University Without Walls 2019 graduation ceremony at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, May 15, 2019.

Part of our mission at Injustice Watch is to help train and mentor the next generation of investigative journalists. We do this through our paid reporting residency program and by participating as a journalism residency site for students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Our residents contribute to our judicial election guides, collaborate with staff reporters and editors, and pitch and report their own stories about inequities in the court system. This year, our residents reported on the barriers that transgender people with criminal records face in trying to change their names, how lockdowns and transfers have interrupted college classes for dozens of people at Stateville prison, how people in the Cook County Jail experienced the Covid-19 Omicron surge last winter, and whether there’s a better way to evaluate judicial candidates. Our residents also worked with staff on stories about the races for two seats on the Illinois Supreme Court and the possible impact on abortion access in the state, and changes to the state’s felony murder statute and the people the law left behind.

And much more

Illustration by Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch

Cook County Circuit Judge Raúl Vega retired Jan. 28 after more than two decades, the last three as the presiding judge of the court’s domestic violence division.

We investigated allegations of sexual harassment against former Judge Raúl Vega, who led the Cook County Circuit Court’s domestic violence division before he suddenly retired last December under a cloud of allegations. In collaboration with The TRiiBE, we reported on the backlash to the SAFE-T Act, which will end cash bail in Illinois starting Jan. 1 — and debunked myths being spread by conservative politicians and media outlets. We used data to show how Judge Vincent Gaughan’s 81-month sentence for former Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke — who was released this year after serving about three-and-a-half years in prison for the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald — was lenient compared to the judge’s sentences in similar cases. We looked at the first year of Illinois’ new “prosecutor-initiated resentencing” law, which has been billed as one tool to help dismantle mass incarceration but so far has not led to the release of a single person from Illinois prisons. We talked to immigrants and attorneys about what happened to immigrants who were in detention when an Illinois law banning immigration detention went into effect.

We couldn’t have done this work without the support of our readers. Thank you for being part of Injustice Watch’s community. Our team is growing in 2023 and we have a lot more work to do. If you want to help support our public-service journalism, you can make a tax-deductible donation today. See you next year!