The Costly Toll of Dead-End Drug Arrests

Country/area: United States

Organisation: Better Government Association, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Circuit, University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Health Journalism

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 03/12/2021

Credit: Casey Toner, Jared Rutecki, Frank Main, Forest Gregg, Hannah Cushman, David Kidwell, John Chase, Paul Saltzman, James Causey, Analisa Trofimuk, Pat Nabong, Ashley Rezin, Nina Fuentes, Olivia Obineme, Satchel Price, Cesar Calderon, Jesse Howe, Andy Boyle


Frank Main is a criminal-justice reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. He began his newspaper career in Tulsa, Oklahoma and worked in Louisiana and Kentucky, covering local politics and crime. 

Casey Toner of the BGA is a longtime local journalist who worked for over four years at the SouthtownStar on major beats and investigative stories.

Jared Rutecki manages the BGA databases, and creates stories on state and local government matters, including pensions, payroll and public safety. He has sent more than 1,500 public-records requests a year on average since 2016.

Project description:

In Chicago, thousands of low-amount drug cases are tossed out of court every year because of an unwritten rule in which prosecutors and judges don’t think such cases are worth the hassle. So why are the arrests happening in the first place? That’s the question the Better Government Association and the Chicago Sun-Times tackled in this multi-part investigation. The BGA and Sun-Times found the dead-end drug arrests cost taxpayers millions and those arrested their jobs, housing and freedom. Reporters also explored alternatives, including what is being attempted in Oregon where such arrests are handled with tickets rather than arrests.

Impact reached:

The BGA and Sun-Times had several avenues of impact for this work, which was part of The Circuit, an ongoing collaboration between the BGA and another nonprofit newsroom in Chicago, Injustice Watch that has accessed, organized and analyzed massive amounts of criminal court data from the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court’s office. 

The “Dead-End Drug Arrests” project took a slice of that data and then went deep into it in order to get our findings. But we’ve also, for the first time, made access to the systemic data in the Cook County court system 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 also 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.

Other reporters and researchers used our data to augment their work.Interest in the data we analyzed is only growing because 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. 

The stories also have begun to have a direct impact with lawmakers and those most directly affected. The project has reinvigorated talk of possible legislative reforms and reporters also engaged community members through public education events. These events, one streamed online and one in person, connected those affected by drug charges in the legal system to connect with the story and experts on the topic of addiction treatment.

Techniques/technologies used:

The BGA and Sun-Times analyzed 280,000 drug possession arrests made in Cook County between 2000 and 2018. The data includes the name, age, race, arrest date, jurisdiction and information from the court docket. Analysis was tracked using R Markdown notebooks. Reporters collaborated using Git, and performed analysis using a combination of R Studio, Python and PostgreSQL. 

The examination focused on only the cases in which the top charge filed against individuals was possession of less than 15 grams of a controlled substance — the lowest-felony drug charge in Illinois.

Available court data does not provide the precise quantity of drugs, so reporters took a random sample from the most recent year — 2018 — so they could examine the available records at the courthouse. The clerk of the circuit court doesn’t make scanned files of all years available at court terminals, but files from recent years are available. This allowed reporters to collect records that provided deeper detail. Cases involving marijuana charges were not considered.

Cases were classified as advancing to the criminal phase or dismissed. Of the 365 cases, there were 227 where the highest quantity was 1 gram or less.

Our findings were applied to all narcotics possession cases in 2018, with a confidence interval of 95% and a standard error of plus or minus 1.4%. Based on this analysis, the estimated dismissal rate for all narcotics possession cases of 1 gram or less in 2018 increased to greater than 95%.

The analysis determined the dismissal rate from all examined cases for 2018 — including cases where the weight was higher than 1 gram — was 71.8%, and 50% for 2000 to 2018. The rate of dismissal increased through the years.

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 such as 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. Drug addiction and use are considered stigmatizing behavior, and it makes many reluctant to speak about their experiences.

What can others learn from this project?

Our launch of stories in December 2021 was a continuation 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.

Reporters also shared a large number of documents organized by Google Drive, which allowed them to track records for the project. 

Using other data sources to supplement the court data was also key to telling the complete story. Police arrest data allowed reporters to explore the geography of the cases, and the concentration of drug arrests near the drug markets on Chicago’s West Side. Custodial data from the sheriff allowed them to put a price on drug arrests.

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