The Chicago Justice Project has filed suit against the office of Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez to end what they allege is a pattern and practice of circumventing the requirements of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
The Chicago Justice Project is an independent non-profit research organization that seeks to analyze data from criminal justice agencies to promote reforms to the criminal justice system. They have sought access to that data through FOIA requests.
“The data is going to be used to build a website to educate the public and policy makers about how the state attorney’s office goes about doing their job,” Tracy Siska, Executive Director of Chicago Justice Project told the Cook County Record.
He hopes that the site will be an agent of education and a tool for decision making on the part of voters and policy makers.
“I think there’s a vast amount of ignorance on the public’s end about what the justice system is meant to do and what it actually does,” Siska said. “And that’s a very big problem for democracy, because many of those leaders are elected, and we don’t have anything but their campaign commercials to judge whether or not they’re worthy of being voted for.”
The lawsuit, filed Dec. 16, comes after years of back and forth between the CJP and the State’s Attorney’s Office.
The complaint cites six FIOA requests from May 2010 to July 2015 that were rejected or went unanswered by the State’s Attorney’s Office. The information requested included data on criminal assault cases, data on felony prosecutions, information on how the State’s Attorney’s Office gathers and tracks data, and even information related to all FOIA requests received by Alvarez's office.
In 2011, CJP created a Sexual Assault Data Practices and Transparency Task Force, but their progress was stymied by a denial of their FIOA request.
“They just stopped talking to us," Siska said. "They stopped returning phone calls, emails, we think with the whole intention of obstructing the task force so that it would stop its activities.”
Siska said CJP finally decided to file a lawsuit because they felt there was no alternative. CJP alleges the repeated refusals are a breach of FOIA, which states that information should be made available to the public upon request.
“Any public body that asserts that a record is exempt from disclosure has the burden of providing by clear and convincing evidence that it is exempt,” the Act states.
When the State’s Attorney's Office rejected the sexual assault data request, CJP appealed to a public access counselor who issued a letter saying that the exemptions claimed by the state's attorney were inappropriate. After the letter was issued, the State's Attorney's Office still failed to release the data requested.
“It’s our sincere hope that this litigation action motivates the states attorney to have a change of heart and stop its blatantly illegal activities and move towards putting all of their data online,” Siska said. “So basically remove the need for filing additional FIOAs by anyone going forward."
UPDATE: According to Cook County court records, the Chicago Justice Project's legal action remains pending as of March 22 against the Cook County State's Attorney's Office.