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Prosecutors: County budget cuts let crooks off hook
Fewer misdemeanor cases, longer waits

Friday, March 02, 2007
Chicago Sun-Times
by ERIC HERMAN Staff Reporter

Life's about to get easier for hookers, pot dealers and vandals.
Cook County prosecutors say they will take on fewer misdemeanor cases because of a $7 million budget cut by the County Board. People dragged into Traffic Court will have to wait longer, especially in the suburbs. And a departure of experienced prosecutors could turn into an exodus.
"The whole justice system is going to be hurt," said David Erickson, a retired judge and former top aide to State's Attorney Richard Devine.
With its budget cut to $89 million from last year's $96 million, the state's attorney's office laid off 43 prosecutors, along with 10 investigators and 45 support personnel. Ten lawyer positions remain unfilled. In all, the office will lose 144 positions, including support staff, Devine said.
The office now has 846 lawyers, down from 899 last year, according to Devine spokesman John Gorman. A decade ago, when the rate of serious crime like murder was much higher, the office had 945 lawyers, according to Chicago Lawyer magazine.
Prosecutors' caseloads are expected to increase 6 percent, from 108 cases per lawyer to 115, according to Gorman. That means cases will take longer and witness memories will grow staler.
The burden is likely to fall most heavily on misdemeanor and traffic courts, said Bernie Murray, chief of the Criminal Prosecutions Bureau.
"I'll be damned if I'll understaff felony courtrooms. And I'll be damned if I understaff domestic violence courtrooms," Murray said.
That translates into less prosecution of low-level crimes like prostitution and pot dealing, Murray said. More suspects will have cases dismissed in court, he said.
Social scientists like James Q. Wilson have argued that tolerating such "quality of life" offenses leads to increases in serious crime.
But Murray said, "I don't know where else to understaff."
The closing of five community prosecutions offices could also hurt neighborhoods. Those offices provided a forum for complaints about vagrants and gangs, which often led to charges being filed, he said.
Traffic Court will become more backed up, especially in the suburbs, Murray said. Drunken driving cases and other offenses will take longer, and more cases will be plea bargained, said Michael Hood, deputy supervisor of the traffic division.
Many lawyers resigning
The office also closed its nuisance abatement unit -- used to combat drug houses -- and the energy and environment unit. It cut the arson unit to a single prosecutor. Of lawyers laid off, 23 worked in the criminal bureau, seven in narcotics, five in the public interest bureau, five in civil actions and three in juvenile justice.
Special Prosecutions survived unscathed, with no layoffs in the bureau that handles public corruption, gang offenses, cold cases and other crimes.
The cuts triggered a wave of resignations. In the last 2½ weeks, 16 lawyers have resigned from the Criminal Prosecutions Bureau, which handles major felonies, Murray said.
"It's pretty obvious to me and some other veteran prosecutors that [Cook County Board President] Todd Stroger does not appreciate or have any understanding about what we do," said former Assistant State's Attorney Dan Tiernan, who resigned Feb. 22. Tiernan plans to start a law firm with two other prosecutors who have quit, Theodore Adams, and Kent Delgado. Together, they have more than 35 years experience.
Stroger spokesman Steve Mayberry said "personal digs" at Stroger "would be more appropriately redirected to the elected official that has made a management decision to let specific employees go."
Pay disparity
Prosecutors angrily maintain that public defenders earn more. Stroger's budget does raise the salaries of some prosecutors but it does not include cost-of-living adjustments public defenders receive under their union contract.
First-year prosecutors earn $48,000. The average pay for a prosecutor with eight years experience was $63,500 last year, according to Gorman, while for a public defender it was about $75,000.
The public defender's office is likely to lose only 11 lawyer positions, according to the union that represents them.
"When I was first in the state's attorney's office back in the 1980s, the goal was to attract career prosecutors," Erickson said. "Now, because of the budget cuts and salary disparity, you can't keep the same people."


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