Courtroom sketch by Thomas Gianni

It’s just after 9:30 on a recent Tuesday morning. Cook County Circuit Court Associate Judge Clarence Burch takes off his wire-rimmed glasses, rubs his eyes with the palms of his hands and slides them back up the bridge of his nose. He looks exhausted, though court has only been in session for less than half an hour. Burch is speeding through defendants’ names and charges at the pace of an auctioneer. His pen races as he tries to keep score of the cases.

“You’re free to go. The charges have been dismissed,” Burch says to defendant after defendant, sometimes repeating these parting words: “Good luck to you. Stay out of trouble.”

Burch oversees a misdemeanor courtroom on Chicago’s West Side where, each day, a steady stream of mostly African-American defendants approaches Burch’s bench accused of crimes like drug possession, trespassing, battery and other low-level offenses.

Critics say the parade of defendants in Burch’s courtroom is a result of a wink-and-nod agreement between police and prosecutors that goes like this: Police make petty arrests to get people off the streets in an attempt to deter more violent crimes, and prosecutors or city attorneys run with the charges with few questions asked. It’s an exercise of justice that’s more show than substance: Defendants spend days, weeks or even months in the system where odds are their cases will ultimately be dismissed.

Eight out of 10 misdemeanor cases have been dismissed between 2006 and 2012, shows a Chicago Reporter analysis of records for 1.4 million cases maintained by the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County and the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts.

Cook County’s dismissal rate is among the highest in the nation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Candace McCoy, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at The City University of New York, said that’s likely the result of a policing strategy she describes as “rounding up of the usual suspects.”

“Police can round people up that they see as disorderly,” said McCoy, an expert on pretrial processes. “Are these people guilty of anything? We don’t know, do we?”

Michael Morrissey, a veteran Cook County public defender, said what’s far more telling than any statistic is a visit to the pre-bond court holding cell at the Cook County Jail. “Some 300 people are arrested and in the bullpen each morning on the weekends,” he said. It’s the backend of what he calls “sweep the streets” policing.

That has come at an enormous cost. During the past seven years, taxpayers have spent an estimated $796 million on arrests, prosecutions and detentions in these dead-end cases, the Reporter analysis shows.

The practice has drained resources from Cook County’s clogged criminal courts where it’s taking longer to dispose of cases, and forced defendants to languish in increasingly crowded jail cells awaiting trial.

“Are we using our resources effectively?” said David Olson, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at Loyola University Chicago. “If a lot of cases are dropped, that suggests that many of those cases shouldn’t have been filed in the first place.”

During an afternoon break in his chambers, Burch said that the cases that come across his desk may be small but they can’t be ignored. “It’s better to err on the side of caution,” he said.

“Now, more people are going to funerals on Saturday than church on Sunday,” Burch added. “You’ve got to do everything you can to stop it.”

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Renault Harvey, 34, of West Englewood has been in and out of the criminal court system since he was 19. He says that for young men in his neighborhood, police stops and searches are just a part of life. “It’s like everybody is a suspect,” he says. Photo by Sophia Nahli Allison.


Roughly half of the 1.2 million misdemeanor cases dismissed in Cook County’s criminal courts between 2006 and 2012 boiled down to 10 crimes, with assault, battery, drug possession, theft and trespassing leading the list.

Renault Harvey, a 34-year-old from West Englewood, has been charged with half of those offenses since coming of age. Harvey, who wears his long dreadlocks tied in a knot at the top of his head, has a rap sheet that includes seven misdemeanors and one felony. At 19, he was charged with his first offense—disorderly conduct. In his 20s, he was picked up twice for drinking in public and then with disorderly conduct, mob action, drug dealing, gun possession and property damage.

His most recent brush with the law happened late last year when he was charged with assault and property damage after a car window was busted during a fight he had with a friend. He spent less than a day in jail and went back there one recent afternoon to collect his belongings.

As Harvey sees it, if you’re a young man growing up in Englewood, police stops and searches are just part of life. “It’s like everybody is a suspect,” he says.

There’s little wonder why policing is so aggressive in the 7th Police District, which is similar to neighborhoods where police make the most arrests. The district, which includes Englewood and other predominantly black neighborhoods, is one of the city’s highest crime areas. In 2011, it had the highest number of homicides. Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy responded by assigning more officers to the district’s hot spots.

Arrests in Chicago have steadily decreased during each of the past seven years, but police haven’t backed off from their tough-on-crime approach. Police have set a standard: If they have “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has occurred, is underway or is about to happen, they have the right to stop and question people. Civil rights advocates call this Chicago’s version of New York City’s “stop and frisk,” a controversial practice that a U.S. District Court judge ruled amounted to racial profiling.

Last year, police logged roughly 6,300 arrests in the 7th District.

McCarthy has been unapologetic about the high volume of stops in high-crime areas. “We have to stop people when we’re going to arrest them,” McCarthy told reporters at a news conference in August. “We have to frisk them if we’re in fear of a weapon being present—which endangers our safety.”

In this corner of the city, police say that the strategy is yielding results. In 2012, homicides fell in Englewood by one-third, from 60 to 40, while citywide homicide numbers went up.

But a lot of the arrests didn’t stick. In 2012, more than 3,600 defendants living in Harvey’s ZIP code alone saw their misdemeanor cases dismissed, the Reporter analysis shows. Among the charges dropped most were drug possession, gambling and trespassing.

“This is just like 25 years ago,” said Harvey Grossman, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Since the mid-1980s, Grossman has filed a series of legal challenges against the Chicago Police Department’s use of sweep arrests as a crime-prevention strategy—particularly among young black and Latino men.

“It’s a system that permits officers to have a high level of arrest activity without a check on their behavior,” Grossman said.

Robert Lombardo, a retired Chicago police officer turned associate professor of criminal justice and criminology at Loyola University Chicago, said that police officers don’t write the laws but they are under enormous pressure to enforce them.

“No police officer is going to risk criticism, or his job, by letting someone go as long as there’s probable cause,” Lombardo said.

Often times, he added, “they make arrests knowing full-well that a judge is probably going to let him go because the criminal justice system is so overcrowded.”

Harvey’s case was dismissed this summer, bringing his record to seven dismissals and three convictions.

“These are petty cases,” and they usually don’t warrant jail time, he said pointing to the Cook County Department of Corrections compound that stretches along four neighborhood blocks. Sometimes the arrest itself is the punishment, he adds.

If police “are going to B.S. with you, then they could write it up [so that] you can come spend a couple days up here,” pointing behind him.

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According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2010 report, which was based on a one-month survey of the nation’s 39 largest local circuit courts, Cook County had the fourth highest dismissal rate—42 percent. Courts in Kings County, N.Y., which includes the borough of Brooklyn, took first—with the rate of 53 percent.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle chalked up the sheer volume of dismissed cases to the prosecutors’ “calculations” about what they have to do to have “good relationships” with the police.

Preckwinkle added that the issue is particularly acute with the Chicago Police Department, which arrests a majority of the people facing criminal charges.

But Adam Collins, the department’s director of news affairs, said his agency has little to do with dismissal rates. “Tracking the reasons cases are dismissed would be a question for the State’s Attorney’s Office or perhaps the courts,” he said.

For his part, Fabio Valentini, the chief of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office’s Criminal Prosecutions Bureau, said his office puts felony cases—except for drug-related ones—through a formal review process to filter out weak cases. But it doesn’t have the staff “to qualify the strength” of each misdemeanor charge when it enters the system, he said.

Last year, 165,000 misdemeanor cases—which involve a mix of state law and city ordinance violations—were opened.

“It would be safe to assume that, if we could apply the same [felony-style] review, we would have fewer cases,” he said.

Eighty percent of misdemeanor cases that have been dismissed since 2006 were thrown out by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office or city attorneys—not by a trial or a judge. Roughly half were dismissed without a stated reason. Most of the remainder were classified as “stricken with leave to reinstate”—typically because of a missing key witness. Prosecutors threw out these cases with the caveat that they could be reinstated if a witness decides to testify. Collins pointed out that cases can also be stricken off with leave to reinstate as part of a “brokered agreement with prosecutors or a judge.”

Nearly four out of 10 missing-witness cases involved types of crimes—such as drug possession—in which police officers would most likely become the complaining witness, the Reporter analysis shows.

When witnesses don’t show, Grossman said, that’s when cases start to unravel.

Police, prosecutors and the police union disagree over why or whether officers aren’t testifying. Valentini said it’s up to officers to show up on their assigned court dates. Under Chicago police regulations, officers are required to show up to court during the weekdays. Collins maintained that the officers do show up. “There are ramifications if an officer doesn’t show up to court,” he said.

Pat Camden, a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police, said the most likely reason officers aren’t going to court is because they’re not getting paid. “Police officers are public servants,” Camden said, “not indentured servants.”

When officers don’t show, Grossman said, it undermines the whole arrest. “That breeds disrespect” for the courts.

* * *

Last year, 77,000 people were booked in the Cook County Jail, mostly on nonviolent crimes. People unable to post bond languish behind bars awaiting trial. Many of the lowest-level crimes are likely to end up dismissed. Photos by Sophia Nahli Allison.


Through Cook County’s central bond courtroom, past a set of steel doors and jail guards, the concrete hallway leading to the inmate holding cells gets grimier every 10 yards.

Men in brown jumpsuits sit quietly in cells to the left. Among them are two elderly men, one whose legs have been amputated and the other who is so weak he hangs onto the wall for support. A guard leads a disheveled woman in shackles past them, along a yellow stripe that’s painted down the center of the floor—a guide of sorts between courtrooms and Cook County’s largest holding cell.

It’s just past 10 a.m. on Friday, and there’s not a single seat left on the steel benches that wrap around dank cages in the basement of the Cook County Jail.

“It’s like the field of dreams,” John Manos, a 24-year corrections department veteran, quips during a tour of the jail compound. “If we build it, they’ll fill it.”

Roughly 100 men wait in a series of holding cells. Some are sprawled across the concrete floor with their heads tucked inside their T-shirts in a futile attempt to block out the noise and the smell of urinals. They spent the night before at a police lock up, and their torn shirts, filthy clothes and bloodshot eyes hint at the trouble that landed them here in the first place.

“There’s that whole broken-windows theory,” said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, a former prosecutor who runs the jail. “You have to ask, ‘To what end?’ ”

In September alone, 2,050 defendants sat in the jail on misdemeanor charges, according to Dart’s office. Most didn’t have the money to post bond and remained locked up either until their charges were dropped or until they stayed for a period that’s equivalent to a maximum sentence they could have received.

“These are the guys who stay [in the jail] for five days, 20 days,” Dart said. “They’re gumming up the system.”

The most frustrating thing, Dart said, is how little he has to show for it all.

“I spend so much manpower on moving 1,400 [people] between court appointments and doctor’s appointment each day. There’s not much left for substance-abuse or job-training programs,” he said. “We’ve got to give these guys something so when they get out, they don’t come right back.”

* * *

Timothy Evans, chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, said he has little control over the volume of dismissed cases, even if they are putting a strain on the system he oversees.

“Members of the judiciary have nothing to do with the circumstances in the way a person is charged,” Evans said. “Prosecutorial decisions are solely in the hands of the state’s attorney’s office.”

Preckwinkle argued that the prosecutors should be using more of that discretion and move to close cases sooner. Between 2006 and 2012, it took an average of 57 days for a case to be dismissed, the Reporter analysis shows. “The state’s attorney’s office has the responsibility for presenting the state’s case, and if it’s a weak case that they are going to dismiss out … why don’t they decide” that sooner?

Otherwise, Preckwinkle said, “We’re clogging up our courts with cases that are not substantial, sufficient enough to be pursued.”

The bottom line, Dart agreed, is this: “Those cases need to be fast-tracked.”

Valentini said that would require more manpower in the state’s attorney’s office.

For prosecutors, dismissing cases sooner is also a gamble, said Purav Bhatt, a former Cook County assistant state’s attorney who stepped down in 2010 to open a private practice. “Maybe they could have a weak case, but, if [prosecutors] are wrong about their discretion, they leave themselves open to appearing soft on crime.”

Nearly four hours after court was called into session, Burch waives the final defendant to the bench.

A petite woman who looks like a high school student walks past rows of wooden benches once packed with defendants. The seats are empty now. So are the three rows at the front of the room that are reserved for police officers.

The woman, who is 18 and facing a prostitution charge, has been sitting in the back of the courtroom for hours with a man who looks twice her age, has bloodshot eyes and smells of liquor. He has hugged her tightly since they arrived late for court.

Burch leans forward in his black leather armchair, smiles wide and asks the woman why she missed the 9 a.m. call.

Her babysitter fell through, she explains shyly.

Burch sets the next court date.

He leaves her with these parting words: “Slow down.”

The court is adjourned, and Burch heads to his chambers before court resumes again later in the day. The cases will likely be similar to those he heard in the morning. Odds are most will end up dismissed.

“Because a case is dismissed doesn’t mean that a person is not guilty,” Burch says.

“A person who is a complaining witness—[if] he has a legitimate complaint, he has to be heard,” Burch says. “Everyone has their right to a day in court.”

Contributing: Matthew Kovac, Latricia Polk and Evan Moore.

is a staff reporter at The Chicago Reporter.