Justice should be blind, but not confused

The difficulty of getting clear-cut criminal justice statistics and accurate records on individuals is a problem that pervades our state.

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Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, left, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, right, in 2019.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, left, on March 31. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, right, meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board on Aug. 30.

Colin Boyle and Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

When Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle argued recently over how to approach bond court reform and the problem of gun violence, much of their disagreement rested on how they interpreted crime statistics.

Preckwinkle said statistics gathered by Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ office supported her view that bond reform is working. Lightfoot said the stats were unreliable because they failed to account for the many crimes for which no one was arrested.

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The debate illustrates the need for more accurate criminal justice data in Illinois, including the most basic crime stats. Reliable statistics and accurate records on individuals are not always available in Illinois, though advanced technology should make this relatively easy to do.

Ideally, a single statewide agency — the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority would be our suggestion — should collect all criminal justice information and distribute it in a uniform way to those who need it, including legislators and other policymakers.

Other reforms could include:

  • Large counties, such as Cook, should ensure all local agencies that use criminal justice information have data collection systems that are fully computerized and compatible.
  • Each county should ensure that its data systems are fully computerized and compatible with the systems used by other counties.
  • Relevant and important data that isn’t collected now, such as all reported uses of a concealed-carry gun, should be added to the information that a statewide agency manages.

How justice is not served

Why is this necessary?

Individuals who are acquitted of serious criminal charges or whose cases are dismissed need an official record that has been fully and promptly updated. Police making an arrest need to know if they are dealing with a felon or someone who was exonerated at trial. Policymakers need to know if the programs they create and support are getting results. Organizations seeking grants need data to establish the need for their programs. Authorities need to know when it’s time to let someone out of jail.

Whenever any of this does not happen — whenever the system breaks down — people are at risk of being unfairly denied jobs, housing, education or even their liberty.

Illinois has 102 counties, each with its own computerized or manual systems for keeping track of arrests, charges, convictions, dismissals, sentences and the like. Larger county court systems often use several different and incompatible case management systems. Various counties also have their own ways of coding the thousands of Illinois crimes and penalties on the books.

It’s as if everybody’s speaking a slightly different language.

“[In Illinois] the ability of local units of government and state agencies to effectively analyze and use [criminal justice data] continues to lag,” the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics says on its website.

Minimal advances

Some progress has been made. Recent tech upgrades in Cook County, for example, now allow the sheriff’s office and the chief judge’s office to share data on a daily basis when people are released from jail. That was impossible before.

“We have pushed and advocated a lot around better use of data,” Lanetta Haynes Turner, Preckwinkle’s chief of staff, told the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. “Data is only as good as the system that you get it in and only as good as how you analyze it.”

But sometimes, data isn’t even collected.

Last year, for example, it was reported that the state police do not keep records on when concealed-carry license holders fire their weapons, or if someone is wounded or killed. That leaves policymakers in the dark with respect to an issue — concealed-carry — that is highly contentious in Illinois.

And even when records are kept, critics say, good luck deciphering them. If, for example, a defendant was charged with five crimes but convicted of only one, “half the time you can’t tell what count the individual was convicted of,” a recently retired Cook County public defender complained to us.

All of this will make it harder for authorities to carry out a statewide effort, just begun, to expunge convictions for low-level marijuana possession. It’s hard to expunge a specific conviction if the official record does not make clear what each conviction was for.

“I didn’t do that one”

The craziness pops up in other ways, as well.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison reform group, told us that she’s watched people read over their official state criminal record in amazement. They point to charges and say “I didn’t do that one, or that one was dismissed,” Vollen-Katz said, “and sometimes they are right.”

A defense lawyer told us that he’s had trouble “getting clients released when they were supposed to be released” because the county’s records are in such disarray.

Further complicating the matter are private companies that buy criminal justice data and resell it to businesses and individuals doing background checks. An employer might be checking out a prospective employee, for example, or a landlord might be checking out a would-be tenant.

Critics worry that those private companies don’t always keep the data they sell up to date. How quickly do the sellers note — if ever — that someone has had a conviction overturned?

As Paula Wolff, policy adviser at the Illinois Justice Project, says, Illinois has for too long crafted criminal justice policies based on anecdotes.

It’s time to stop.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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