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Legal scholar’s new website offers a picture of the criminal justice system

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Using a small subset of death-eligible murder cases, a new database launched by a Northwestern Pritzker School of Law professor offers a glimpse into the criminal justice system – more specifically the Circuit Court of Cook County pretrial detention system in the first six months of 2003 – and the bureaucracy surrounding them. 

Leigh Bienen, a senior lecturer at Northwestern Law, recently launched “2003 Chicago Murders,” a compendium of numbers, system identifiers, dates and other information about 140 death-eligible murders in Cook County, all cases where an indictment for murder was returned during the period of Jan. 1, 2003, to June 30, 2003. 

The cases are divided into three subgroups based on the length of the sentence imposed. All of the data on the website, which comes from public records, includes names of the defendants and victims, defendants’ zip code and age at offense, method of killing and many more details. The data can be downloaded and analyzed by the user. 

The new database is a companion website to Bienen’s “Illinois Murder Indictments 2000-2010.” She said she hopes the database will provide a reliable, accurate and original set of data about an important part of the criminal justice system for anyone interested in murders, murder rates, cities, capital punishment, jails and mass incarcerations. 

Bienen said the purpose of the site is to spur additional research by making the raw data available.

What surprised Bienen most during the research process was that even those who had all charges against them dropped, or were acquitted, still spent about two years to have their cases disposed of. 

For example, she writes, “Persons awaiting trial in Cook County Jail had dozens, as many as 60 or 70, routine in-court appearances before a trial court judge, with attorneys for both prosecution and defense present, between their first appearance in court and the final disposition of their case in court by a trial court judge,” adding that there are state and federal constitutional guarantees of the right to a speedy trial.

“There was no reason for most of these defendants to be locked up as long as they were, or to have so many routine call backs, or court appearances, every one of which required a dozen salaried employees to be in the court room,” Bienen said. “And that doesn’t count the numbers of employees outside the courtroom in the courthouse, or the many people employed in the county jail itself, not to mention in the prison system after a defendant is convicted.” 

Bienen said the database is “a snapshot of a bureaucracy.” 

“It is a bureaucracy which rolls ahead with its own momentum, and the momentum does not have as its primary goal providing a speedy trial, or a just result for those accused, or for providing a quick and just result for victims of murder and their families. 

“This bureaucracy, like all bureaucracies, remains in place because it is in the interest of those who are members of it to keep it going. If you want to understand how we ended up with more than a million people in jails and prisons nationwide, this snapshot will give you a picture of the criminal justice system and its operation.” 

This research grew out of Bienen’s earlier work on homicide in Chicago and capital punishment, some of which focused on patterns of prosecutorial discretion in the selection of murders for capital prosecution in the 102 autonomous Illinois counties prior to the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois in 2011. There were no death sentences imposed and there were no capital trials in any of the 2003 cases included in the database, although all cases were identified as death eligible murders by the State’s Attorney in Cook County.

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