In the weeks leading up to Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ successful re-election on Sept. 12, his office received some potentially bad news from CWBChicago.
Our team had identified some apparent errors in the court database that Evans used when making claims about the success rate of his affordable bail program. Some felons who were arrested for new felonies while out on affordable bail were listed in the database as having not re-offended.
The apparent errors, if verified, could be problematic for the judge, who widely claimed that the affordable bail “re-offend” rate was very low.
Evans’ office said the errors we identified were innocent and his representative promised to provide an updated database for new analysis.
One week before election day for Evans, his staff severed all communications with us. And the promised “corrected” dataset never came.
Evans won re-election handily.
Our experience with Evans’ office regarding bail data takes on new importance today as the Chicago Tribune, working independently, found major errors in the court’s data — and problems with Evans’ claims about affordable bail.
The Tribune also won something from Evans that he refused to provide to us: A dataset that includes defendants’ names for every case.
On July 23, 2019, CWBChicago asked Evans’ office to release the database that the chief judge uses to form his claims about affordable bail, such as the number of accused criminals who re-offend while on bond.
The court system is not subject to Illinois’ freedom of information laws, so Evans wasn’t required to provide us with anything. And, if he did, his office could bill us for the costs of collecting our information. We are not a money-flush operation.
On Aug. 9, after receiving no response to three inquiries, we sent Evans’ office a final email: We would be writing a story about his unwillingness to provide his data unless we heard from them by the end of the day.
Twelve hours later, we received (at no charge) a spreadsheet that details every criminal case filed since Evan’s affordable bail program began in September 2017.
The Excel file is massive. 39,000 cases. More than 2 million data points.
But not many names.
Evans’ office removed the names from all pending cases because, they claimed, Illinois Supreme Court rules bar the release of such information.
Discrepancies in data
The lack of names for pending cases made verifying Evans’ claims about affordable bail success almost impossible for CWBChicago.
The best our team could do with the provided data was try to verify the accuracy of resolved cases in which we knew the defendant had been arrested for a new felony while on affordable bail for an earlier felony.
We quickly found two errors in which defendants are listed as not re-offending while on bail when, in fact, they had been charged with new crimes: A serial burglar who committed more break-ins while out on a recognizance bond with electronic monitoring and a robbery offender who committed another robbery while on bail.
We contacted Evan’s office about the apparent discrepancies after office hours on Aug. 19. A representative from Evans’ office contacted us on Aug. 22.
The provided data is accurate, we were told, we just couldn’t see it because the data team had made a mistake.
“It’s in there,” the rep said, “but it’s not identifiable.” He promised to provide a corrected dataset.
But, he said, the court’s data people aren’t there all the time and they have a lot going on. They wouldn’t be able to start working on the new data set until Sept. 13 — the day after the chief judge’s election.
Oh, and the election had absolutely nothing to do with the turn-around time, the chief judge’s office said. The data people simply couldn’t get to it in a more timely manner.
This is presumably the same data team that turned around the initial, de-identified dataset in about 12 hours.
On Sept. 5, we emailed an idea to Evans’ office: Maybe we could post the court’s de-identified dataset online. Surely, somewhere out there, a more skilled data researcher could filter out the errors for analysis.
A representative from Evans’ office soon left a voice mail requesting a callback about the idea. We called. And called. And emailed repeatedly.
But we never heard from Evans’ office ever again. About anything. Evans never provided the “corrected” database. And, of course, he won re-election.
The Chicago Tribune reported today that Evans has agreed to finally release his full bond dataset, including the names of defendants in unresolved cases.
“I am enthusiastic about it. I believe that adds to our commitment to transparency,” he said.
Evans’ office did not respond to an email request for comment on our story today.