A long winding path for government transparency

About this time last year, Mick Dumke, a senior writer at the Chicago Reader, decided that he wasn’t going to bite his tongue any more.

Dumke and I had privately been going back and forth about how to pry court records from the office of Dorothy Brown, the clerk of Cook County’s massive court system. We both wanted to probe what was happening within our local criminal justice system where, according to our analysis of the U.S. Department of Justice, expenditures top $1 billion each year.

“Our criminal justice system is rife with disparities along lines of race, income and power,” Dumke wrote last March in a pointed article aimed at shaking the data loose. “Yet it’s impossible to confront or even monitor the system’s flaws without first overcoming a troubling disparity of another sort: the gulf between the public’s right to know and the access offered by our institutions of justice.”

The sort of electronic court records that Dumke and I were after is not subject to open records laws in Illinois. Local officials have complete control over who they will give electronic files to and at what cost. I was asking for more than 11 years’ worth of data that would tell us who’s been convicted of a crime in Cook County, for what, where they came from and, to some extent, how much it is costing taxpayers. Lucky for us, Timothy C. Evans, chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, approved our request.

But Brown’s office told us that it would cost $7,000 to process our request–purportedly to cover the time and effort to pull the records. As a nonprofit news operation, we couldn’t afford it, so we decided to start a fundraiser. But Evans eventually waived the fees for us. That was just the beginning of the end, though.

While Dumke waited for his records, “Seasons changed; crops were harvested; babies were born; the Bears collapsed,” he wrote. His data finally arrived in March (but a $1,400 bill still stands between him and the records*.) Mine didn’t. I continued to make phone calls, send emails, and make a stink on Facebook. Then I waited some more.

Finally, the data arrived in May, about seven months after I filed my first request.

I used the data as a basis for three of my stories for The Chicago Reporter. One just came out as the cover story in the March/April issue. Here are just a few of the facts that we’ve been able to glean–thus far:

  • In just more than a decade, more than 147,000 prison sentences were handed out to Chicagoans, costing taxpayers an estimate $5.3 billion. The bulk of those folks came from just 2 percent of the city’s blocks;
  • Three decades after the “war on drugs” was first waged, fear continues to not only drive new harsher laws but send more black men into state penitentiaries;
  • A growing number of those adult felons are actually children. Not only does the number of 17-year-olds arrested in Chicago trump all other major cities, they nearly equaled the total of arrests in Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia combined;
  • Enough people have been convicted of a felony in Cook County during the past decade to fill the seats of Soldier Field more than three times over. Four out of five of those defendants were represented by public defenders who carry crushing caseloads that are the highest in the nation.

Each of these stories stands on its own. But at the Reporter, we’re trying to connect the dots. The same goes for Dumke, who has done more than his fair share of trying to make sense of a criminal justice system that, at times, just doesn’t.

What we can say for certain is this: Without public records, we wouldn’t even be able to begin trying.


*Correction: This post originally stated that Dumke had received the the data that he requested. While the information was made available, the cost was prohibitive and he is currently requesting a fee waiver from Judge Evans’ office.

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