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Cuts may throw scales of justice off balance

Tuesday, February 06, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Eric Zorn

Even regular critics of the Cook County state's attorney should be alarmed about the looming cuts in his office.

In fact, regular critics--and I've been one--should be especially alarmed. An underfunded, understaffed prosecutor's office is bound to make more mistakes, not fewer.

Pay assistant state's attorneys poorly and deny them regular raises, and many will depart for private practice, if only to pay off their law school loans.

Cut their number--State's Atty. Richard Devine has already laid the jobs of 75 prosecutors and 75 support staffers on the sacrificial budget altar, and may have to double that--and those left behind will have more cases to handle.

That's a recipe for injustice. Not only the injustices that columnists, investigative reporters and professors tend to dwell on--wrongful convictions of the innocent--but also the less-heralded forms of injustice, including wrongful acquittals of the guilty, distasteful plea bargains to clear huge backlogs of cases and frustrating delays in the trial process.

Only evildoers stand to benefit from facing a smaller, less experienced team of prosecutors. And even bad guys will spend more time in jail (or legal limbo) awaiting trial. The poorer among them, as well as among those falsely accused, will have a harder time getting help from the Cook County public defender's office, which is also facing steep cuts.

"Data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that each Cook County prosecutor is responsible for 600 cases," said Devine's recent statement to the County Board's Finance Committee. "Los Angeles, the office closest to ours in size, has caseloads of 184 per attorney, and San Diego has 88."

"And we are a bargain," Devine continued. "The cost per capita for a prosecutor in Cook County is $23.07, Manhattan is $48.97 and the average is $28.16."

Even if Devine makes only the 9 percent budget cut he has offered so far, he said each prosecutor's case load will "increase substantially, giving prosecutors less time to speak with victims, witnesses and police officers, and to prepare and try cases."

This isn't to say that prosecutorial misconduct, when it occurs, is primarily a fiscal problem.

It's to say that even the best-intentioned lawyers for the people need time and resources to do their jobs carefully and well. And that all of us count on them every day.

Do I know that Devine is already operating at maximum efficiency? No. But in interviews Monday, reform-minded Democratic County Commissioners Forrest Claypool and Michael Quigley said the state's attorney's office is not known as a patronage haven.

Will the public be less safe if Devine has to slash his budget by up to 17 percent? Or is he using scare tactics to redirect the budget ax or persuade the commissioners to pass a tax increase?

I don't really know. And I doubt those who are demanding across-the-board cuts really know, either.

The budget is a flabby beast, thanks largely to the poor stewardship of Stroger's predecessor, his father, John.

But the time for the sort of genuine, objective inquiry and job-by-job analysis that would allow for surgical removal of fat for fiscal 2007 is long gone. State law demands that the commissioners pass a budget by Feb. 28, three weeks from Wednesday, and Stroger has retired from the negotiations even as they are at a dramatic pitch.

"At this point, I'm not at the table," he said in a live radio interview on WLS-AM that aired during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. "It's in [the commissioners'] hands ... I'm not going to get in [their] debate."

Though Stroger has frequently repeated his campaign pledge not to raise taxes, he refused to say Sunday whether he would veto a tax increase if the board passed one.

Is he secretly hoping that train-wreck scenarios such as Devine's "force" him into agreeing to a tax hike?

"Absolutely not," said Stroger's spokesman Steve Mayberry when I suggested such a secret hope. Signing off on a tax increase "is not in his interests."

Maybe not. But a weakened system of justice will not be in anyone's interest.

Even from his preferred seat on the sidelines, this is Stroger's chance to take and his choice to make.

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