Kim Foxx Just Released Six Years of Data — Most Prosecutors’ Offices Remain Black Boxes
On Friday, in what her office called, “the first [release] of its kind in the country,” Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx made public six years of felony criminal case data. The data was released in four Excel tables delineated by stage — intake, initiation, disposition, and sentencing — and includes more than 45 million data points in total. Unique identifiers are used for cases, defendants, and charges, so any member of the public can trace them through each stage. This wealth of information comes on the heels of Foxx’s 2017 Data Report, released in mid-February, which briefly summarized some of last year’s felony prosecution statistics. “Our work must be grounded in data and evidence,” said Foxx, “and the public should have access to that information.”
The sheer amount of information included in this release means it will take more than a few days to decipher any major conclusions. But the mere fact that it is publicly accessible is in itself newsworthy. The Cook County state’s attorney’s office is enormously powerful. As the second largest prosecutor’s office in the country, it handles almost half a million cases a year on a $150 million budget. Every day, their decisions shape the futures of thousands of people. Yet, until now, we’ve had little information about what those decisions look like in aggregate.
Head prosecutors are democratically elected — and yet they rarely release even the most superficial data about what happens in their office, making it difficult for voters to hold them to account. “Data release from prosecutors is virtually non-existent,” says Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project. In fact, in many jurisdictions, it’s not even clear how much data the staff maintains internally. If someone wants to know just how many people in their county were prosecuted for marijuana possession last year, what the average bail request is in a misdemeanor theft case, whether Black defendants and white defendants are offered the same bail amount for the same crimes, or even just the percentage of defendants that plead guilty in their jurisdiction, they are going to have a monumentally difficult time finding that information.
In some counties, prosecutors release an annual report, which often include a few statistics about their work. But those tend to be cursory and self-serving — an opportunity to brag about an astronomically high conviction rate, for example, or tout their cost-cutting skills. “Rarely is there something truly substantive available from a district attorney’s office,” emphasizes Fordham University Professor John Pfaff.
There are a few outliers besides Foxx — in California’s Santa Clara County, for example, District Attorney Jeff Rosen releases an annual Race and Prosecution report. And, in 2014, Vera Institute of Justice worked withDistrict Attorney Cy Vance to analyze racial disparities in Manhattan’s 2010–2011 criminal case outcomes. But Vance has not provided any update to his study, which is now six years old. And, unlike Foxx, neither Rosen nor Vance has released any raw data.
This lack of information makes it virtually impossible to know if prosecutors who claim to be reformers are keeping promises. Many elected prosecutors are facing a more demanding electorate, voters who reject the tough-on-crime affectations of traditional law-and-order officials. In cities like Philadelphia, Houston, St. Louis, Orlando, and even Chicago, voters have elected district attorneys who promise to take a less punitive approach to prosecution, and who are willing to confront the underlying struggles that many defendants experience, such as addiction, homelessness, and mental illness. And in jurisdictions around the country, organizers are struggling to figure out whether these reformers are staying true to their word — without useful data, they are reduced to cobbling together data points from other agencies and extrapolating from anecdotes. District attorneys in Manhattan and Brooklyn have repeatedly promised to stop prosecuting certain crimes such as marijuana possession and turnstile jumping, for example. “But the challenge is that when prosecutors say they aren’t prosecuting marijuana anymore, there is almost no way for us to know if that’s true.” says Nick Encalada-Malinowski, civil rights campaign director for VOCAL-NY.
Sometimes, organizers have to invest their own resources in accountability. Just last week, advocates in New York officially launched Court Watch NYC, a collaborative project created by VOCAL-NY, the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, and 5 Boro Defenders. The project trains people to observe arraignments and bail hearings in New York in order to hold district attorneys accountable. “One goal is to have our own data, to be in control of our own data to counter false narratives,” says Encalada-Malinowski, adding that they want to “demystify the process and get people used to thinking about civic engagement with the DA’s office.” Court Watch NYC is reminiscent of programs in other cities, including Chicago. It’s a stop-gap solution to a major public failure — community groups and individuals combining their limited resources to make accountability possible. “Our hope is to get the data between the margins,” said Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY. “We want to understand how prosecutors behave and not just the final outcomes of the case.”
For prosecutors that profess to care about accountability, providing public data themselves should be non-negotiable. Foxx undoubtedly deserves recognition, but in an ideal world, we’d have access to much more information than she has offered so far. Her office handles 400,000 misdemeanors a year, none of which are included in this data. And even among the cases included there are still important data points missing — there’s no information about bail and pre-trial release, nor is there even anonymized data about the prosecutors handling each case. “The bottom line is that prosecutors should always release all of the data they have,” says Siska. Otherwise, “it’s always missing something. It’s always telling their version of what’s going on.”
Complex, robust, disaggregated data that is anonymous but individualized, and allows us to see exactly how the office functions day after day, is a minimum. “For too long, the work of the criminal justice system has been largely a mystery,” Foxx stated Friday. “That lack of openness undermines the legitimacy of the criminal justice system.” She’s right, and as voters and residents, we must demand information about how our prosecutors operate. Kim Foxx has offered a starting point, and other prosecutors should surpass it. Without this data, we’re forced to address some of the criminal justice system’s most pernicious conundrums — racial injustice, mass incarceration, criminalization of the poor — without a roadmap.