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Public defender: Budget cuts could cause bigger deficit. COOK COUNTY: Commissioners irked by timing of statement.

Friday, January 26, 2007
Northwest Indiana Times
by LEAH NYLEN Medill News Service

In the latest backlash against proposed cuts in the Cook County budget, the head of the public defender's office said Thursday that the $9.75 million carved out of his department would actually create a $12 million increase elsewhere.
 
Public Defender Edwin Burnette's remarks upset some Cook County Board commissioners, who complained they had not been officially informed of his impact statement until Thursday's meeting of the County Board's finance committee.
 
Burnette said he had submitted the statement to board President Todd Stroger a month ago, which prompted some of the commissioners to criticize Stroger for keeping them in the dark.
 
Commissioner Roberto Maldonado, D-Chicago, said he first learned of Burnette's report last week when he called the public defender's office and suggested the omission of the statement was intentional.
 
"To learn after the fact, almost by accident, that there is a big problem with the way that you were basically forced to cut your budget is revealing and at the same time also a little bit annoying, because it seems to me that you've been told not to tell the truth," Maldonado said.
 
But Burnette denied that Stroger's office pressured him to downplay the potential effects of the budget cuts, and said he was simply doing his job.
 
"At no time has the administration asked me to tell anything other than the truth," Burnette said. "I'm not in a position nor am I inclined to tell the board of commissioners what I will or will not do.
 
"If I'm told to meet a 17 percent target, I intend on doing that," Burnette said. "It's my responsibility to let you know what the impact is."
 
In his report, Burnette said the public defender's inability to represent all cases coming out of municipal and civil courts could cost the county $12 million. That is because incarcerated defendants will have to remain in jail for an additional 30 days until new proceedings can be scheduled, he said.
 
In order to meet  Stroger's 17 percent reduction, the public defender's office will eliminate 36 attorneys and 11 clerical staff positions. The remaining workers will face decreased hours, with most now working four days per week instead of five, Burnette said.
 
On average, lawyers deal with 250 felony cases or 1,900 misdemeanor cases per year, about 60 percent more than the American Bar Association's recommended guidelines, Burnette said.
 
"We're expecting them to do the same thing on a four-day work week when nobody else (in the justice system) is on a four-day work week," Burnette said. "In my 30 years of practicing law, I don't know how that's going to work with that type of volume."
 
Stroger's office has suggested the public defender ask Chicago law firms to provide pro bono work in the courtrooms where the office is short-staffed, according to Donna Dunnings, director of the county's budget and management services.
 
"It's routine in the legal field for attorneys to take pro bono work," Dunnings said. "Since we're faced with a deficit of this magnitude, we have to come up with new and creative ideas. This is the administration's way of addressing (the public defender's) needs."


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