As the pace of justice in Cook County has grown slower and slower, leaders of the criminal court system have failed for years to implement a first step toward reform: collecting data on why cases get delayed.
Now that finally may be changing.
Six months after the Chicago Tribune published its “Stalled Justice” investigation, court officials told the Tribune they soon will begin recording the reason that a criminal case gets pushed to another date — a step that experts have long recommended so the county can better understand and target issues that can drag out cases for years.
The Tribune investigation, which focused on murder charges, found that the vast majority of court hearings in those cases last only a minute or two and end with a legal maneuver called a “continuance.” The case is then resumed on another date, typically four to six weeks later. Some cases get continued 50 or more times.
Reporters found a wide variety of reasons that judges grant continuances. Prosecutors may say they need more time to track down and turn over potential evidence. Judges might give themselves more time to rule on lawyers’ requests. Some police officers fail to show up to testify at pretrial hearings and need to be ordered back.
Though attorneys may tell the judge why a case should be delayed, many judges don’t record that information, the Tribune found. Instead, they typically scribble the date of the next hearing on a sheet of paper with the phrase “B/A” — to signify a case was continued “by agreement” of both attorneys.
Court officials said judges are now being trained to use new codes that note the reason for the continuance. Starting this month, those reasons will be logged in the circuit clerk’s case management database. Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ office provided a sheet listing more than a dozen categories of delay reasons, from issues with DNA evidence to questions about a defendant’s mental fitness for trial.
The new tracking system was welcomed by Forest Gregg, a partner in the Chicago firm DataMade who’s studied court data as part of the Chicago Data Collaborative. The collaborative — which includes news organizations, academics and nonprofit researchers — collects and organizes data on the criminal justice system. (The Tribune is not a member.)
“If the courts and clerks faithfully record the reasons for continuances and if that data is made available to the public, that should highlight the unnecessary sources of delay and create pressure to fix them,” Gregg said.
The Tribune’s investigation found murder cases move more slowly in Cook County than in any other major urban court system that could be studied. Court leaders have long failed to act on recommendations for fixes, including logging why delays occur.
While Evans has downplayed the Tribune’s findings, he’s also said since 2021 that he wanted clerks to start logging the reasons that delays were occurring. In mid-April, after the series was published, reporters asked the chief judge’s office if and when it would pursue that issue. Evans’ office did not respond to the question at the time.
When the Tribune asked for an update in mid-September, the chief judge’s spokesperson said his office had completed a list of codes in late April and sent them to the circuit clerk’s office. A circuit clerk’s spokesperson later confirmed it has been working with its computer vendor over the summer to make the programming changes.
The rollout was delayed while judges and clerks adjusted to the state’s new rules on pretrial release, but the new logging system has now been tested, with the system expected to go live this month.
“We are working with our justice partners to conduct a final review of the process,” circuit clerk spokesperson Cesar Rolón wrote in an email.
It’s unclear how available the data will be to the public and to researchers. Unlike most states, Illinois has no law or judicial rule requiring public access to court data. It’s up to each circuit’s chief judge if he or she will allow its release. Evans’ office did not respond to a question about whether it would release the data to the public.
Evans’ office also did not respond to questions about whether it planned to study the data being gathered and whether the logging effort was part of a broader push to limit unnecessary delays. Other places have launched reform efforts after collecting and studying such data.
Gregg said he hopes judges and clerks will accurately code the reasons for delays. “And,” he said, “I hope the courts publish the data.”