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.
In recent months Chicago’s political leaders have celebrated an apparent drop in crime. But wouldn’t it potentially be useful to take a closer look at what’s going on? To find out, say, how many homicides have ended in convictions? Or what kinds of sentences are handed to people who rape someone they know? Or how many people caught with unregistered weapons are actually prosecuted?
It certainly might—but good luck. Accessing such information will take several months and thousands of dollars, if you can get to it at all.
That’s because in Cook County there’s a huge disparity between court record keeping and the modern world. Public court records are maintained with paper, manila folders, cardboard boxes, and a creaky, inaccessible computer network that might have been up to date 20 years ago.
Court record keeping is the sole job of the Cook County court clerk’s office, run the last 12 years by Dorothy Brown.
Brown is up for reelection.
“I think this is probably one of the most challenging elected offices in the county and maybe even the state,” Brown says. “And that’s what attracted me to it. I saw it as a vacant canvas, that I could actually then paint the picture of an efficient operation.”
Creating a real one would have been even more helpful.
Brown says she deserves a fourth term because she’s made progress. She notes that when she took office, some court records were only kept in handwritten ledger books.
And now? About 3 percent of case filings are done electronically. No records are available online except for civil case dockets. The only way to view other records is to trek to the courthouse and ask to see the paper files.
Brown says she’s done all she could with 2,100 employees and a $110 million annual budget. She also says state court officials won’t let her do more.
Her challenger, Alderman Rick Munoz, says that’s nonsense. “You don’t have to move around boxes and boxes of paper.”
He hammers Brown for awarding a contract for computerized filing to one of her campaign donors. Now it costs users $5 to file. Filing is free in most jurisdictions.
And there’s also the question of Brown’s priorities. When she lists the technological advances she’s overseen, the time line stops in 2007. That’s when she ran unsuccessfully for mayor. Three years later she ran unsuccessfully for county board president.
She says she hasn’t been distracted. “I think Barack ran for four things and finally became president. So, similar to the president of the United States, he obviously, like me, has a desire to serve.”
Unlike the president, I know firsthand how difficult it is to access public information through her office.
Last July, after conversations with police officers, I thought I’d take a look at how many people were charged with unlawfully using guns in 2009 and 2010.
I followed protocol by first sending a formal request to the office of Chief Judge Tim Evans. It was quickly approved. I then forwarded the approval to Brown’s office, since I can't get the information anywhere else.
I waited. Seasons changed; crops were harvested; babies were born; the Bears collapsed.
I waited some more.
At last, in December, I received an e-mail notifying me that the records—the public records I’d asked to see half a year earlier—were ready for me.
All I had to do was pay the clerk’s office $1,450.
I was informed that this was to cover the costs of the nine hours of research and programming it took Brown’s employees to extract the information from their computer system.
What sort of programming? And what kind of computer system? Did the nine hours include the time needed to ship the system from China? And what clerk’s deputies earn $150 an hour?
I’ve received no answers. “I will have to look into it,” Brown promised me herself.
That was a month ago.
This is par for the course.
The Chicago Reporter organized a fund-raiser for the cash it had to come up with to look at court data. Attorneys say case files are routinely in disarray. Defendants trying to look up their cases at the courthouses often give up in frustration.
Can Munoz do any better? Brown says it’s not a good sign that the bio posted on his City Council page describes his kids as 12 and 8, though they’re now in college and high school. “He talks about technology, but this is an alderman who doesn’t even have a website.”
A fair point.
But another researcher, who’s waited even longer than I have to access public court data, says that’s not the real question: “I mean, can he do worse?”