Digitizing the Justice System to Increase Public Access!

With the election of Barack Obama and his verbal commitment to increase public access to governmental data, the time has come to address the dismal level of public access to criminal justice related information in Chicago.  The recent temporary assignment of a 14 year old to the rank of Chicago Police patrol officer only highlights the deficiencies that are present in our criminal justice system. American history is replete with examples of the disinfecting power of Sunshine on government waste, corruption, and ineptitude.  The criminal justice system in Chicago has countless examples of all of the above as well has being littered with dedicated public servants held prisoner by poor policies and management.

     Chicagoans for decades have had to tolerate a criminal justice system that operates far from effectively and fairly. The current status of public access to criminal justice related data could only be characterized as ridiculous and strewn with bureaucratic roadblocks and an extreme level of agency level secrecy.  The Chicago Police Department regards their obligations under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act as a choice rather than legally required.  The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office does not publish an annual report leaving voters and policy makers alike little choice but to guess at how the office actually operates.  The Cook County Circuit Clerk’s Office’s computer system that allows the public to search cases in person at their office is less user friendly and efficient than my old 1980s Commodore 64.  There is no ability for a community member, researcher, or policy maker to track a case across the width and breath of the system, maybe not even within an agency.
     The current level of information access within the criminal justice system in Chicago and Cook County has not just happened through chance.  It is a choice.  Not one of the three agencies have put any significant resources towards digitizing their operations in a manner that would increase public access. The criminal justice agencies in Chicago and Cook County have chosen to shield their data from public access and prefer to use friendly media outlets to put information on display for the public in a manner that is least empowering as possible. It is time that the public, the media, and policy makers hold these agencies to their legal obligations under Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act and force the agencies to turn information over to the public.
Chicago Police Department
     Recently the Chicago Police Department has instituted the CLEAR website.  This has been touted by the Chicago Police Department as a breakthrough in transparency for policing in America.  The site does allow an increased level of access to certain types of data, mainly data the department is happy to share.  The data does not provide users with better information about the officers working their communities or any history these officers may have of civilian complaints of abuse.  The site is also absent any type of data that would provide users with information about what particular units or officers are at work in their community or what types of arrests they are making.  Had this information been public, communities would have been empowered to participate in an informed discourse about the necessity of the now infamous Special Operations Section. Since the creation of Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act the Chicago Police Department has had a reputation of completely failing to live up to their legal responsibilities.  When Superintendent Weis was brought in February 1, 2008 there were plenty of promises of increased transparency and openness. Recent attempts to use the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to information regarding the decision by Superintendent Weis to arm patrol officers with the M4 military grade assault rifle have been met with the same skirting of legal responsibility for which the Department is famous.
Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office
     The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office is by far the least accessible of all the criminal justice agencies.  They do not publish an annual report or in any way release data that could inform the public’s perception of their work.  In fact, they rely on the complacent media as an accessory to maintain their secrecy.  Without any track record to access, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office operates in a black box, devoid of any community oversight whatsoever. I was amazed when former Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine went to the press concerning the caseload of his prosecutors and sought a pay raise for his prosecutors from the Cook County Board.  I could not reconcile how he could produce caseload numbers per prosecutor and still not be capable of producing an annual report.  In my fifteen years of researching the criminal justice system in Chicago and Cook County this was the first time I saw any numbers produced by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.  This fact alone proves that the office is not incapable of producing numbers and providing them to the public when it suits its needs.  Obviously, the lack of an annual report is a choice rather than something the office cannot produce.
Cook County Circuit Clerk’s Office (Cook County Circuit Court)
     In recent years, the Cook County Circuit Clerk’s Office has made attempts at increasing public access.  They have digitized only a minimal amount of information regarding cases before civil judges and made access available through their website.  I was unable to locate any information regarding criminal cases.  Regardless, you can search by case number, plaintiff or defendant or date filed.  If you receive any results, which I did not when searching for civil suits against the Chicago Police Department, only the barest level of information is available.  This limited access does not give you any documents related to the case or even the details of the complaint involved.  While even the flimsiest of access is better than no access at all, the current level of access is far from empowering for anyone that uses it. The level of digitization within the Circuit Clerk’s Office does not allow the public or policy makers to track the activities of the judiciary in Cook County.  Only broad access to all cases each judge handles, the demographics of everyone involved, and the results of each case, would allow users the ability to make an informed decision about how the judiciary is operating.  From what I see, the level of current access is incapable of providing this information.
Conclusion
     Data must be made available across the spectrum of criminal justice agencies and in a concerted effort with an end goal of empowering community members, the media, and policy makers with information about how the system is operating.  Individual agency efforts, while welcome, need to be coordinated with a goal of community empowerment.  Politics and infighting within the agencies has traditionally prohibited the criminal justice agencies from ever working together properly.  When information is released to the public it has traditionally either completely benefited the individual agency or the information has been less than reliable. The agencies themselves have much to gain by digitizing their work.  Efficiencies within the operations of the agencies through digitization will reduce the cost of services while also increasing transparency.  The Internet and innovation within the information technology field provides the necessary components to allow low cost community access to the data generated by the criminal justice agencies.  Policy makers need to step up and use their regulatory powers to force a level of transparency and openness on these agencies that will truly empower individuals to have a meaningful role in how the criminal justice system operates in their communities.