For decades, the Cook County courts have functioned as a government body that is inaccessible to the public. Everyone familiar with the system knew it was a mess because of sloppy and inconsistent record-keeping. But a group of newsrooms asked themselves what would happen if they could extract, clean and reorganize that data so it could be usable to the general public? That was the spark that launched an unprecedented journalistic collaboration we now call “The Circuit.” Reporters used the data to spot troublesome trends from two veteran judges. They also created a visualization of 20 years of criminal charge
For the first time, access to systemic data in the Cook County court system is now available to the public. Our project standardized a massive amount of information so that it could be used and analyzed by researchers and reporters. We visualized trends in criminal cases over nearly two decades and presented it in a way that made it useful for those inside and outside the legal profession. It made information that was hidden from the public available for all to see.
While other agencies in Illinois have reports and data sets that showcase the events in the judicial system, the data from the clerk’s office provides the most complete picture of what goes on throughout every level of the court.
Though the work has taken a great deal of time, there remains much more work to do going forward and the work of The Circuit will continue. In the coming months, a key component of The Circuit’s plans will be to engage other news partners, from large organizations and small, as well as community groups to continue analyzing data, working on stories and unraveling the mystery of the Cook County court system.
PostgreSQL, Pandas and Dedupe libraries in Python, Git, and R Studio were all used as part of the analysis for the project.
Editors at Injustice Watch gained legal access to the Cook County Circuit Court’s mainframe information system. Injustice Watch hired the Chicago civic technology company DataMade, which used software that emulated a mainframe terminal and allowed access to much of the same information available through the public terminals — but from a personal computer.
The state legislature sometimes revised statutes, which changes the statutes mapped to a UCR category. To adapt for changes to the liquor control act and driving under the influence, for instance, we had to widen two categories and used the wider UCR offenses for “Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol” and “Illegal Possession of Alcohol by Minor.”
Once we had a method for counting cases by charge, we needed to decide which cases to count. A person who is arrested for a felony typically has two cases associated with the arrest. They start with a case in a municipal division, where a judge holds a preliminary hearing of the police’s criminal complaint. At this hearing, the judge determines whether the police had probable cause for the search and arrest and whether there is sufficient evidence to move forward.
If a case can move forward, the state’s attorney’s office will usually file its own charges, which will start a new case in the criminal division. We needed to avoid double counting felony cases that have a municipal division and criminal division phase. To do this, if a criminal division case and municipal division case are associated with the same central booking number, a number unique to a single arrest, we only counted the criminal division case and did not count the municipal division case.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Criminal charges and statutes in the database were entered manually by clerks. For example, there were hundreds of different ways a clerk could enter a crime like aggravated assault or possession of a controlled substance.
In order to analyze the records, they had to be counted consistently. It took reporters more than a year to get the data consistent for a systemic analysis.
Beyond the hurdles required to analyze the data, the legal system also has factors that hinder reporting on issues. Cases cannot be filmed, and participants in the criminal justice system are often reluctant to speak about their experience for many reasons. Reporters also had to be especially careful when reporting on issues of sexual abuse, where emotional and psychological damage can linger far beyond the time of the crimes or the trial.
What can others learn from this project?
Our launch of stories in October 2020 was just the beginning of this unparalleled collaborative journalism investigation that explores and exposes decades of overlooked data and their connecting patterns buried in the files of the Cook County courts.
Much of the data we extracted from the court system was complicated and disorganized, but we were able to arrange it in a usable way to answer long-standing questions about a court system that serves 5.2 million residents. At a time when the local media is shrinking across the nation, including in Chicago and Cook County, we hope our collaboration serves as a statement that despite our organizations’ varied missions, we share similar core values and goals to achieve a greater good: exposing institutional failures that obstruct justice, confronting racial and economic inequality, and providing greater transparency to make the court system more accountable.
Partnering with the University of Chicago, whose focus is research and education, allowed the journalists and academics to pool resources that were mutually beneficial. Other organizations could use this process as a model for future projects.