Lack of statewide pretrial data is an impediment to reforms, advocates say

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A state board tasked with collecting and analyzing data on pretrial practices in circuit courts across Illinois says numerous obstacles will delay its work for months, which advocates say could embolden opponents of recent criminal legal system reforms.

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The Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today (SAFE-T) Act, signed into law by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker more than a year ago, will abolish Illinois’ money bond system at the start of next year. It will also limit pretrial detention to people accused of the most serious charges whom a judge finds pose either a flight risk or a direct threat to a person.

The legislation also created the Pretrial Practices Data Oversight Board to collect and analyze pretrial data in circuit courts in each of the state’s 102 counties. The board was tasked with finding out how each county collects data on charges, demographics, release conditions, case outcomes, and other metrics; defining additional pretrial data points; suggesting how that data can be systematically collected and reported statewide; and identifying how much that would cost. Legislators called for that effort to be completed by July of this year and for data collection to begin soon after.

But in a report issued in July, the board described a myriad of obstacles forcing it to postpone data collection for at least another year.

Cara LeFevour Smith, director of the Illinois Supreme Court’s Office of Statewide Pretrial Services, said the timeline for collecting the data from 102 disparate county systems across the state proved too ambitious to achieve in time. “Our goal is to make sure everything that’s pushed out from the board is accurate,” she said.

But advocacy groups that work with survivors of gender-based violence expressed concern that the delay — and the information void that it creates — will play into the hands of opponents of the legislation, who have decried it as a threat to public safety.

Several Republican lawmakers, county prosecutors, and law enforcement groups have warned that the SAFE-T Act will harm survivors of gender-based violence, although advocates said no data backs that up. Some have gone so far as to allege that it has already increased crime in the state, even though some of its most controversial parts — especially the end of cash bonds — ​​ won’t take effect until Jan. 1.

“It’s been incredibly difficult and frustrating to constantly be seeing quotes and comments from opponents of the Pretrial Fairness Act saying it’s going to harm victims, when some of the major victims-advocacy groups in the state are supporting it,” said Madeleine Behr, policy manager at the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.

Behr and other organizers focused on gender-based violence said they worked closely with legislators to ensure that survivors’ safety was taken into consideration when crafting and passing the SAFE-T Act.

Under the pretrial reform, people arrested on domestic violence charges may be held in custody for 24 to 48 hours, so judges can review evidence and have a comprehensive hearing before deciding whether the accused should be incarcerated or released with conditions to protect the survivor’s or their family’s safety. People charged with domestic violence will no longer be released directly by police or after a quick bond hearing — and release decisions must be based on the risk posed by a defendant and not on their ability to pay.

“Delaying this data just makes it more difficult to really understand the intricacies of these cases and make sure that this system is working as it’s intended to,” Behr said.

She said she is interested in the demographic court data that can help them better understand the racial dynamics in gender-based violence cases.

“Are we most often seeing Black defendants who are charged with sex crimes getting petititons to detain and not white defendants? Are we seeing white victims getting better treatment by the system, i.e., a quicker notification, more opportunities for protective orders than say Black victims?” Behr said. “This is the kind of data that we need to make sure that the system is working as equitably and safely as possible.”

Data collection is no easy task

The Pretrial Practices Data Oversight Board’s report said it needed more time to create a connected network of data collection across all 102 counties in Illinois.

Smith said an earlier working group convened by the Illinois Supreme Court had identified 48 key pretrial data points that should be collected in every county. But only two-thirds of Illinois counties surveyed by the working group had a system in place to collect this data. Adding to the complication, those counties weren’t collecting the data uniformly, and some were still using paper documentation.

With data collection so inconsistent from county to county, the Pretrial Practices Data Oversight Board reported that it needed more time to create a uniform list of pretrial data fields that every county would collect and implement a standardized case management system through its contract with Tyler Technologies, a software company that helps the public sector build digital infrastructures.

Advocates for survivors of gender-based violence also raised concerns that the board wouldn’t collect data on the outcomes of domestic and sexual violence cases, citing their omission from the 48 key pretrial data points.

Amanda Pyron, executive director of The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence, said that data has to be collected across the state to understand the effect of the Pretrial Fairness Act on survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

“What we want to know is how can we make Illinois the safest state for survivors of gender-based violence? How can we prevent and end gender-based violence?” Pyron said. “In order to design the systems that we need, we’ve got to have sufficient data.”

Smith said the 48 data points were just a starting point and told Injustice Watch that the effects of the SAFE-T Act on domestic and sexual violence cases would soon be included. The board plans to release the full list of data points to be collected by the end of September, she said.

“The supreme court and (Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts) have been working for about two years to develop the Mercedes-Benz of comprehensive data points that we want to be collecting from every single county court system, so that we can have complete transparency and understanding,” Smith said.

Once those data points are identified, Smith said, Tyler Technologies will have a better idea of the work needed to develop a statewide data collection system, and the board will be able to determine the funding that it will need to implement it.

Sarah Staudt, director of policy at the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, an organization that advocates for an equitable and accessible legal system, said she and other organizers understand that creating a comprehensive data collection system is a massive task. But she emphasized the importance of having this data to combat misinformation.

“There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how the law functions and how it protects survivors,” she said.

Staudt suggested that the board release any data that it collects on a rolling basis.

“There needs to be a lot of public education on how the system actually works and how it differs from the current system,” she said.

Yet data represents only part of what organizers think must get done for survivors to receive adequate help.

In a report released in August, Chicago Appleseed evaluated Cook County’s Domestic Violence Courthouse in Chicago and offered recommendations for improving its current practices. These included making domestic violence court hours more flexible and accessible to survivors, expanding legal and social services, improving judicial training, and working more closely with advocacy groups that could help survivors outside court.

“The court system is not going to be the answer for everyone who has an issue with domestic violence,” Staudt said. “We need to have services available in the community that reach out to survivors in lots of different ways.”

This article was produced in partnership with Report for America.

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