Closing the holes in criminal conviction data

map of criminal convictions in Chicago

Chicago Justice Project

The Chicago Justice Project’s Convicted in Cook website shows the disproportionate concentration of criminal convictions in neighborhoods on the South and West sides.

Transparency is a necessary ingredient for accountability. So when the Chicago Justice Project, an independent, non-profit research organization, recently got records of almost every felony conviction in Cook County from 2005 to 2009—about 145,000 in all—it seemed like a win for a more accountable criminal justice system.

But the data, presented on a new website, Convicted in Cook, say more about the challenge of getting access to good criminal justice data in Chicago than they do about the crimes themselves.

In part, that’s because the trends that emerge from the data don’t tell us much that we didn’t already know about who is convicted of crimes and what they are convicted for.

Drug crimes make up the largest share of convictions, with possession of a controlled substance the largest single charge: 20 percent of all convictions are for felony possession.

  • The largest share of convictions is of 18- to 24-year-olds, followed by 25- to 29-year-olds. Together, those groups comprise more than half of all convictions.
  • The largest concentration of convictions appears on the south and west sides. West Garfield Park had the most convictions, 243 per 1,000 residents, followed by East Garfield Park and North Lawndale. Other community areas with more than 100 convictions per person were Austin, Humboldt Park, Washington Park, Englewood and West Englewood.
  • Less than 2 percent of all convictions were for sexual assault or domestic violence.

“For the most part, the data analysis just reveals what we already know: a justice system fixated on the prosecution of drug crimes,” said Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, which aims to access and analyze data from criminal justice agencies to promote evidence-based reforms. “And it is to be expected that the system has very little consideration for violence against women.”

The real contribution of the Convicted in Cook project is the story it tells about the challenge of getting the county to cough up bulk data on criminal convictions.

It took the group nearly a year to get Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans of the Cook County Court to respond to a request to release the bulk data and another year for the Clerk of the Court to actually comply with the chief judge’s order. The clerk’s office only responded when the Justice Project took steps to threaten legal action.

Unfortunately, intransigence like this is common when it comes to courts releasing data about criminal justice. Strangely, courts are exempt from Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act, under the theory that court records are, by default, open to the public. In other words, because you can walk into the Cook County Criminal Court Building and request records on any individual, the Clerk’s office isn’t obligated to provide bulk data on all convictions. That policy is bad for transparency.

“It is a bureaucracy only idiots and corrupt people would set up,” Siska said.

The Justice Project’s relentless efforts also shed light on the sorry state of Cook County’s criminal justice data. The convictions database they received was plagued by inconsistencies and missing information. The database does not include the original charge, so it’s impossible to discern how many of the convictions were the result of plea deals, which make up 90 percent of all convictions across the country. And although the Justice Project asked for information about race, none was provided, making it impossible to judge whether there are racial biases in the prosecution of crimes in Cook County.

Siska’s next project is a request to Judge Evans for all criminal court data in Cook County to be made publicly available and updated regularly.

Until that happens—until the data are clean, consistent, and made available without hassle—there will still be many things we don’t know about convictions in Cook County and elsewhere around the country.

  • So do the work yourself. We get terribly lazy when it comes to obtaining research information. Even though it takes longer, I prefer the veracity of what I obtain than is what a third party gives to me.