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Streamlining helps ease load for Cook criminal courts, jail

Monday, March 27, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Jeff Coen

Just a few years ago, the Cook County Criminal Courts Building and the Cook County Jail were at a crossroads. The jail's population was overflowing. Many criminal cases at the courthouse languished for three years or more--and that was considered the norm.

Now, with what experts say is an extraordinary level of cooperation among leaders in the Cook County criminal court system, the number of older cases has dipped along with the jail's population.

Defendants are getting to trial faster and spending less time in the Cook County Jail, those leaders say.

"I think the reason for the success we've had is the cooperation we've seen," Cook County Chief Criminal Court Judge Paul Biebel Jr. said.

"We're trying to educate the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys of the necessity to handle their cases as expeditiously as possible," Biebel said. "And they're invested in it, and they're doing it."

In recent years, the number of inmates at the jail hovered as high as 11,000 in a facility that is supposed to have a maximum capacity of 10,000. Bill Cunningham, a spokesman for Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan, said the latest population total recorded this year was a little more than 9,000, and there have been days when it has dipped below that mark.

The average length of stay for jail inmates in the spring of 2003 was 216 days, Cunningham said. By late last year, that figure had dipped to 188 days.

After ordering a sweeping study of the problem, Cook County officials in 2003 began pushing judges to clear older cases from their court calls.

Top prosecutors said that in January 2005, the number of cases more than 2 years old awaiting trial was 1,015. Now, that number now is about 700, First Assistant State's Atty. Robert Milan said.

"By next year, we'd like that to be down around 300," Milan said. "We think it can be done."

Like other players in the courts, Milan said, the state's attorney's office has injected a new sense of urgency into the system. Frontline prosecutors in the courtrooms have been instructed to work with due speed, and supervisors track the number of old cases they are handling.

Target windows have been established for the handling of different types of cases, Milan said. For example, less serious drug offenses might have a target date for disposition of three to six months, while more complicated drug cases involving conspiracy should be through the system in a year.

The more serious and complex the case, the longer the ideal time period for disposition, Milan said, but simpler cases are being moved faster.

Cook County public defenders said their priority always is to protect their clients' rights, but they also are committed to speeding up the process.

"Our interest is that our clients do not have to spend any more time in the Cook County Jail than is absolutely necessary," said Xavier Velasco, chief of operations in the office.

There are cases that enter the system that all sides may recognize as likely to result in a probation sentence, Velasco said. If that is the likely outcome, it is in everyone's interest to keep the defendant out of the jail, he said.

Ernest Friesen, the national expert working with Cook County court leaders, said that strategy is known as a "differentiated" case management system, which assumes that all cases are not alike and should not be subject to the same process or timetable.

Friesen, who has studied the Cook County system off and on for years, said the strategy's adoption in Cook County is a "major accomplishment."

Friesen is a founder and former dean of the National Judicial College and helped perform a review of the Cook County system with the federal Criminal Courts Technical Assistance Project, which finished in the fall.

Realizing the kind of improvement Cook County has is difficult because the system includes adversarial players, he said.

The Chicago work has included prosecutors and defense lawyers promising to trade court documents and other discovery in a timely manner and new commitments from Chicago police to make court dates, he said. Judges can't simply accept delays as part of the culture but should weigh each request for more time on its merits, he said.

With the help of a faster system, Cook County judges get good grades when compared with counterparts in other major cities, Friesen said. More than 130 judges in New York City disposed of 30,475 cases in 2004, according to the latest review, while just 40 Chicago judges disposed of almost 2,000 more in that year.

Cook County supervisory judges under Biebel are now getting reports on the numbers of older cases in each courtroom, and they are advised on strategies to speed things up.

"You can't just change what prosecutors are doing or what defense lawyers are doing," Friesen said. "You have to alter the way everyone is doing business."

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