Cook County State’s Attorney ignores FOIA obligations despite unanimous Illinois Supreme Court ruling that prosecutors’ offices are bound by Freedom of Information Act.
CHICAGO–(ENEWSPF)–December 17, 2015. Despite a growing public outcry over lack of transparency and accountability from local criminal justice agencies, for over two years Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez has stonewalled a leading local transparency project seeking data on the office’s prosecution of sexual assault cases.
The Chicago Justice Project — the CJP — sought to work collaboratively with Alvarez for almost two years as part of CJP’s Sexual Assault Data Practices and Transparency Task Force — but in the end Alvarez refused to release any information about the data they create. CJP is attempting to track criminal sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual assault, predatory criminal sexual assault, criminal sexual abuse, and aggravated criminal sexual abuses cases that the Chicago Police Department, as the arresting agency, has referred to the felony review process in the State’s Attorney’s Office.
Today the group sued in Cook County Circuit Court to get the data.
CJP’s multi-count complaint charges Alvarez’ office with a sweeping pattern and practice of ignoring their responsibility under Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act. Over the last two years, CJP filed five requests for information from the Office under Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act. All five were denied for baseless reasons, contends the lawsuit — with Alvarez refusing even the simplest of queries about how many FOIA requests they receive and whether not each of those requests were fulfilled.
“You simply cannot determine if crimes are being adequately investigated and referred for prosecution without data,” says CJP Executive Director Tracy Siska. “Alvarez’ repeated refusal to release records and data under FOIA thwarts even the most basic oversight, and undermines the public’s ability to assess the effectiveness of the agency. Today, we’re moving to confront this practice head-on in open court.”
The Illinois Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 2014 that prosecutors’ offices are public bodies and therefore bound by the Illinois Freedom of Information Act — yet Alvarez’ office continues to refuse to comply with the obligations under the law. CJP argues that the role that the State’s Attorney plays in our criminal justice system is too vital for policymakers and the public not to demand the highest level of transparency possible. The office’s data, says CJP, can educate and inform communities about how the office operates and help restore confidence in the eyes of Cook County residents.
CJP is being represented in the lawsuit by DLA Piper LLP. “We welcome this opportunity to represent the Chicago Justice Project in their fight on behalf of all the residents of Chicago and Cook County,” says Piper attorney Daniel M. Simon. “The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office plays a vital role in our justice system — and it is just as vital that the Office provide nothing less than the highest level of transparency. This is why the Chicago Justice Project brings this complaint today.”
Some of the region’s most respected legal groups are supporting CJP’s efforts. “The Chicago Justice Project is Chicago’s premier justice transparency organization,” said David Melton, Co-chair of the Chicago Council of Lawyers Civil Liberties Committee. “The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office should welcome the opportunity to partner with them instead of using public dollars to continue their fight to hide their data from the residents of Chicago and Cook County.”
The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has also thrown its support to the lawsuit. “We believe that public access to governmental records is crucial,” said Paul Strauss, the group’s Co-Director of Litigation. “We fully support this important litigation against the office of State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.”
CJP is an independent, nonprofit research organization committed to accessing, analyzing and sharing data drawn from criminal justice agencies — and using that data to promote evidence-based reforms that serve the justice needs of local communities.
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