Blacks make up a larger share of defendants in Cook County

The number of people charged in criminal cases has declined steadily in Cook County over the past two decades. But a closer look at the trend reveals strong racial disparities that have only worsened over time.

More than 3 million criminal cases were filed in Cook County between 2000 and 2018. More than 60% of these were filed against blacks, according to an analysis of Cook County Court data by The Circuit , although blacks only make up about a quarter. of the county population.

People of color have historically been disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. But our analysis shows that blacks represent a larger share of defendants indicted in criminal court in recent years compared to 20 years ago. In 2000, 57% of Cook County Circuit Court defendants were black; in 2018, 65% were black. (Due to changes in the way the circuit court clerk recorded race and ethnicity over time, it is difficult to make similar comparisons for the charge rate against Latinx defendants.)


The nonprofit news agency Injustice Watch provided this article to The Associated Press in collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit News.


Growing racial disparities in the justice system have also resulted in greater disparities in incarceration rates. Blacks are now incarcerated in the Cook County jail at more than 17 times the rate of whites, according to an analysis of the prison population and census data by The Circuit. This is the biggest gap between the two groups since at least 1990.

The Circuit analyzed data on specific charges to better understand trends. We also interviewed law enforcement, criminal justice and race experts, who offered possible explanations for the declining number of cases and growing racial disparities in the courts in Cook County.

“What is potentially happening is a change in the types of cases or arrests that are made,” said David Olson, professor of criminology at Loyola University in Chicago.

Several researchers have suggested that changes in public safety priorities have reduced police and prosecutors’ attention to non-violent offenses, such as low-level drug possession, theft and prostitution. At the same time, law enforcement has stepped up its efforts around gun cases, which are disproportionately filed against black men.

Other experts attributed the growing racial disparities to long-standing divestment and policing in black communities. They argue that local lawmakers have relied too much on the criminal justice system to solve social problems, rather than addressing the root causes of crime that disproportionately affect black people, such as poverty, inequality. education, the shortage of paid jobs and the lack of affordable housing.

Research suggests that the overrepresentation of blacks in the criminal justice system reflects social inequality rather than a correlation between race and crime. Research also shows that urban areas with high concentrations of poverty and disadvantage are particularly prone to certain property crimes and violent crimes, especially racially segregated and underfunded communities.

Changing priorities and growing racial disparities

While the number of cases brought to the Cook County Circuit Court has tended to decline since 2000, some types of cases have declined more than others as public opinion, political winds and new laws have declined. have changed the approach of Cook County prosecutors. But as charges have declined overall, racial and gender disparities have worsened for some types of crime.

For example, prosecutors began laying fewer prostitution charges against suspected sex workers in 2005. Then-mayor Richard M. Daley announced his focus on criminalizing clients of female workers. sex at that time. The number of prostitution charges in Cook County fell from over 3,000 in 2004 to just 54 in 2018.

But black women still make up the largest share of those accused of prostitution in Cook County. And a 2020 Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation study found that a growing share of those arrested by police for prostitution-related offenses are sex sellers, despite a law passed in 2014 that offers financial incentives to law enforcement to target customers.

Likewise, the number of cannabis-related charges laid by Cook County prosecutors each year fell 75% from 2000 to 2018, with significant drops after Chicago began decriminalizing small amounts of cannabis in 2012 and when Illinois did the same in 2016.

But even though the total number of cannabis charges has declined, racial disparities between those charged with certain cannabis-related crimes have increased.

Ojmarrh Mitchell, professor of criminology at Arizona State University, has written about racial disparities in drug penalties in the criminal justice system. Mitchell said decriminalization and legalization of drugs such as marijuana can increase racial disparities as fewer people are charged with possession and law enforcement focuses more on arresting people for delivery and disposal. distribution.

Forensic data analyzed by The Circuit shows that the likelihood of an accused being black or white varies considerably depending on the type of charge laid against them. Blacks are overrepresented among those charged with possession of cannabis, but the disparity is even greater for delivery cases.

“Essentially, you’re trading a lot of cases that have relatively low racial disparities for crimes that have bigger racial disparities,” Mitchell said. “The end result is (that) even if the number of cases decreases, racial disparities will worsen.”

A spokesperson for the Cook County State Attorney’s Office, Kim Foxx, suggested in an emailed statement to The Circuit that the increase in the number of blacks charged by the office “may have come from policing strategies employed in black neighborhoods that are not employed in white neighborhoods. . “

The statement said prosecutors generally only review cases after police arrest and alleged the office tried to change police “behavior” by refusing to prosecute more low-level drug cases. brought to the state attorney’s office by the police.

But as prosecutors have brought fewer drug cases to court in recent years, they have brought more gun cases, which police, officials and media often associate with the city’s violence. This trend has also resulted in an increase in racial disparities in the justice system. Between 2000 and 2018, the number of firearms files filed increased by 39% for black defendants but decreased by 49% for white defendants. Blacks, especially black males under the age of 25, are overrepresented among those charged in gun cases.

In 2016, an outbreak of gun violence contributed to more than 750 homicides in Chicago, the highest number since 1997. After that particularly violent year, the police department announced plans to return to policing hot spots, in particular in the neighborhoods of black and brown communities. the south side and the west side, targeting people with guns. Since 2018, the department has also used the controversial ShotSpotter gun detection technology, which the city’s Inspector General has rarely found proving evidence of a crime or a gun.

The number of weapons charges increased by 44% between 2016 and 2018, according to analysis of data from The Circuit.

“The Chicago Police Department is committed to treating all individuals with fairness and respect. We don’t target individuals based on their race, ”said Sgt. Rocco Alioto, spokesperson for the department, in an emailed statement. He encouraged anyone subject to allegations of misconduct to file a complaint with the Civilian Police Accountability Office.

The link between inequity and crime

Racial disparities in charges also reflect long-standing social inequalities, segregation and disinvestment in black and Latin communities.

David Stovall, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said violent crime tended to occur in communities without access to quality health care, quality education, a paid employment and food. The concentration of poverty and violence in these neighborhoods leads to more policing and more arrests, he said.

“If you have stronger surveillance in these spaces, you will also see stronger correlations in terms of people arrested and charged for certain offenses in these areas that may be incidental to gun violence or completely separate from it,” he said. said Stovall, who studies critical race theory, education and housing.

The Foxx spokesperson acknowledged in the statement that “the systemic problems within criminal justice systems are centuries old” and noted that the Foxx office is working to use more diversion programs that link people accused of crimes to social services rather than incarceration.

Olson suggested that other policy changes could help reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system, highlighting Illinois’ R3 program, which takes a portion of the taxes collected on legal marijuana sales and invests in communities affected by disinvestment, violence and excessive surveillance. But he argued that public officials cannot depend on the criminal justice system to heal social ills affecting people of color that are rooted in long-standing social inequalities and economic injustices.

“They will always face racial disparities, regardless of what the system does, as they deal with the production of the company,” he said.

Tanya Watkins agrees.

His organization, Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, is part of a coalition supporting the Budget for Black Lives, an initiative to siphon off funds from the Cook County Jail and invest more dollars in underprivileged communities.

She said the money that currently funds police, prosecutors, prisons and prisons should be used to improve schools, house the homeless, feed the hungry, ensure people have access to health care. health and mental health services, and strengthen social safety nets.

“I think we really need to stop the conversation about what is impossible, sit down and radically re-imagine society,” she said. “Starting with Cook County.”

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