Abbate’s Sentencing: The Case for Expanding Access to Public Records

The actions by Chicago Police Officer Anthony Abbate sure seem to be the actions of someone the public would prefer not to be roaming free on the streets. The video of this beating was aired internationally as evidence of the violent culture of Chicago police specifically and America generally. The public was shocked and surprised on Tuesday when Abbate received a sentence of only two years probation from Cook County Circuit Court Judge John J. Fleming. Greater public access to information from the criminal justice system would allow us to see how this individual ruling compares to Judge Fleming’s prior rulings for aggravated battery.

Access is so limited that we cannot even efficiently compare how Judge Fleming, or any other judge at 26th Street, handles cases of aggravated battery to compare sentences between the cases. Residents of the various communities of color throughout Chicago are not surprised that a white male officer only received probation for the drunken beating of a defenseless woman. Had the attacker of this young white woman been a male of color, whether a police officer or not, the likely outcome would have been significantly different. Also, Judge Fleming’s ruling did not surprise advocates for survivors of domestic and sexual violence against women who all to often see perpetrators slapped on the wrist.

Information technologies can be applied to data created by the criminal justice system to enrich public understanding of how the agencies interact with the public. Currently, the technology does exist which would allow citizens to efficiently pull up a judges’ ruling to determine if any sentence is out of line with prior decisions. However, city and county administrators in Chicago and Cook County have made little effort to apply this technology in a manner consistent with a goal of increasing the public’s understanding of how the entire criminal justice system operates.

Legislators and authorities within the criminal justice system must realize that the public interest is greatly served by providing unfettered access to information from our justice system. The application of information technologies can empower communities by allowing unprecedented access that would significantly reduce the mistrust between the city’s communities and the criminal justice system. There is no technological limitation that stands in the way of the criminal justice system allowing the public to track a case from the filing of a complaint through adjudication and when appropriate incarceration, only political limitations.

The decision to apply information technologies and open the criminal justice system to the sunshine it so desperately needs is an easy one. The chorus of ‘thank yous’ from the public at large would drown out the predictable outcry from agents of the system. It is 2009 and still questions about racial disparities, violence against women, and preferential treatment of agents of the system go unanswered because the decision to apply information technologies throughout the entirety of the system has yet to be made. Abbate’s sentence and the public disgust with it should be just the motivation our political leaders and criminal justice officials need to motivate them to open the system to the public.