The Circuit is an ongoing journalism investigative series into the Cook County court system. The product of a unique collaboration with other nonprofit newsrooms, The Circuit’s aim is to analyze charges and reveal patterns buried in court data.
Three Chicago-based news organizations — the Better Government Association, The Chicago Reporter and Injustice Watch — joined with civic tech consultants DataMade and spent more than a year gathering, organizing and analyzing more than 30 years of data from the every division of the Cook County Circuit Court system. We were assisted by researchers from the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. This work was funded through a grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.
We joined forces to conduct a first-of-its-kind examination of how the Cook County court system works. We aim to expose how different defendants charged with similar crimes are treated, dissect trends in how prosecutors have charged citizens, and study how well defendants have been represented by counsel. We will scrutinize systemic inequities and reveal biases in the fabric of the legal system that have been suspected for generations but never definitively proven.
The Cook County Circuit Court is the second largest unified court system in the world and has long served as a national indicator on issues of justice and equality. The Circuit project also comes at a time when issues of justice and fairness are taking center stage in the national discourse following years of criticism about biased treatment from law enforcement and the judicial system.
Gaining access and analyzing millions of records would have been impossible without this unprecedented collaboration in which news organizations, civic tech experts and researchers combined their distinctive expertises and missions to achieve a collective goal.
Moving forward, a key component of our work will be to engage other news organizations and community groups as we continue to analyze data and work on stories.
This work hasn’t been easy. 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.
And we’ve only just begun.