Earlier this month Kim Foxx, the state’s attorney for Cook County, Illinois, which covers Chicago, released six years’ worth of raw data regarding felony prosecutions in her office. It was a simple yet profound act of good governance, and one that is all too rare among the nation’s elected prosecutors. Foxx asserted that “for too long, the work of the criminal justice system has been largely a mystery. That lack of openness undermines the legitimacy of the criminal justice system.”
She’s right on both counts.
The trove itself is massive — roughly 45 million sortable, searchable data points spanning tens of thousands of cases from investigation to resolution. Granted, the data covers a period prior to Foxx’s ascension (2010 to 2016). However, it’s her office and her budget that are on the hook for any inquiries, legal or otherwise, that the data begets. More importantly, she’s set a precedent of transparency that will be hard to abandon when it comes time to release data about her own performance in office. (Indeed, she simultaneously released a 2017 “data report” that summarizes her office’s work over the past year, though not the underlying raw data.)
This is real accountability. Unfortunately, it’s sorely lacking in most of America’s top prosecutors, which is ironic for a group whose very job is to hold others to account. Most prosecutors’ offices are chronically allergic to sunlight. They routinely fight public records requests and legislative transparency efforts, often claiming, somewhat perversely, that public safety would be harmed if the public knew how its safety was being achieved.
But what if the prosecutors are the ones doing the harming? How are we to know? And how can we cast informed votes or tell our prosecutors to adjust their priorities if we don’t know how those priorities are being implemented on the ground?
Raw data can help us answer these questions, which is why transparency is a necessary tool to remake our broken criminal justice system. Prosecutors, after all, are elected officials who have played a significant role in the nation’s mass incarceration crisis. Without the relevant raw data on how prosecutors wield their immense power, voters will have a more difficult time electing those who are committed to reforming the system in a deliberate and transparent way.
Data transparency also promotes justice. Defense attorneys can use data to assure fairer outcomes for their clients, particularly minorities who receive harsher sentencing recommendations from prosecutors for the same crimes as their non-minority counterparts. The data can identify patterns of constitutional violations that can be rectified by prosecutors’ offices, state oversight agencies, or, where necessary, outside civil rights organizations. In Louisiana, the ACLU and Civil Rights Corps have sued to end a secret witness intimidation program that DA Leon Cannizzaro’s office fought to keep secret by — you guessed it — opposing public records requests.
Prosecutors themselves can also benefit from releasing their data. It shows that they have nothing to hide and, when crime goes down, they can claim verifiable credit. That’s the thing about data: If collected honestly and thoroughly, it does not lie – which makes opposition inherently suspect.
Transparency is also a smart move for prosecutors who want to stay in office. Voters overwhelmingly support increased transparency in the criminal justice system, and a recent ACLU national poll showed that a whopping 85 percent of voters are much more likely to support a prosecutor who believes in sharing data and policies with the public.
Whatever Foxx’s data ultimately reveals, the release itself is a vital signal that she does not intend to hide from her constituents. She and a few others have proven it can be done. Now your local prosecutor — your local elected prosecutor, that is — has no excuse. Show us the data, or we’ll show you the door.