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Public defender's office feeling budget crunch

Monday, October 08, 2007
Daily Law Bulletin
by Jerry Crimmins

The Cook County public defender's office has lost almost 20 percent of its supervisors and 8 percent of its lawyers in the last year, according to its chief of operations, Xavier G. Velasco. The effect is ''very increased caseloads'' for all lawyers in the office. Moreover, the loss of supervisors seems to have no obvious solution. Cook County's budget crunch has made the office unable to post the jobs for replacements, Velasco said. The overall attrition is partly due to Cook County's fiscal situation, which forced the office to lay off 13 assistant public defenders earlier this year. But it is also caused by lawyers in the public defender's office taking advantage of an early retirement package offered this year. The office is down 40 lawyers compared to last year, Velasco said. The loss of nine supervisors out of 47 is an even more difficult problem. ''We're scraping the bottom of the barrel here,'' Velasco said. Among the supervisor jobs that are now vacant are the chiefs of the public defenders in the 4th Municipal District in Maywood and the 3d Municipal District in Rolling Meadows, plus the chiefs of civil division and the Juvenile Justice or delinquency division. The Felony Trial Division in the Criminal Courts building at 26th Street and California Avenue is down to three supervisors for 90 attorneys, half the normal number of supervisors. With the general shortage of supervisors and lawyers, ''the chief of the Felony Trial Division is doing bond hearings,'' Velasco continued. The chief of the Felony Trial Division is also covering status hearings for other public defenders in various courtrooms, the chief's supervisory's duties, plus the chief's normal caseload of criminal matters. ''All supervisors carry caseloads,'' Velasco said. When a supervisor job goes vacant, the work must be assumed by another management person in that division in the office. Whoever must bear those additional duties does so without the extra pay and continues to be responsible for his or her own job, Velasco explained. Due to union rules, he said, new supervisors cannot be promoted from the ranks to fill some of the management slots unless the supervisory jobs are posted according to established procedure, and unless the full pay is available for those positions. On top of that, Velasco said, supervisors in the public defender's office earn an average of $8,900 less than supervisors in the state's attorney's office, he said. He said this figure is calculated for the state's attorney's office and the public defender's office by combining the pay of supervisors in each office and dividing by the number of supervisors in each office. Due to the overall shortage of lawyers in the public defender's office, he said caseloads are climbing. Compared to the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, caseloads in some parts of the office are extraordinarily high, he said. The national standard for an annual felony caseload for a public defender is 150 cases, according to Velasco. Currently the projected felony trial caseloads for public defenders for fiscal year 2007 range from a minimum of 133 percent of the national standard in the 6th Municipal District in Markham to a whopping 266 percent of the national standard in the 2d Municipal District in Skokie. Similarly, public defenders handling misdemeanors in all branches of the Circuit Court are far over appropriate caseloads, he said. The highest caseloads are carried by the public defenders in the courtrooms of the 1st Municipal District in Chicago. Their caseloads this year are projected to be 660 percent of the national standard of 400 misdemeanor cases per year, according to Velasco. Part of the reason for the very high felony caseload public defenders carry in the Skokie Branch and in the 5th Municipal District in Bridgeview, where the caseload is 204 percent of the national standard, is that some of those outlying courtrooms take overflow criminal cases from Chicago. More of the lower-ranking felonies, such as narcotics cases, have been sent to Skokie and Bridgeview, Velasco explained. But murders, armed robberies and serious sexual assault cases are left at the Criminal Courts building in Chicago. ''That explains the spike'' in Skokie and Bridgeview, he said. Overall the public defender's office now has 488 lawyers, 40 less than the 528 the office had last year. The office has also lost in the current fiscal year, which began Dec. 1, 12 support staff and three investigators. This year's budget of $52 million is $3 million less than last year's. In 2004, the office had 840 full-time equivalent jobs altogether. Today it has 702, for a loss of 16 percent of all workers in three years, he said. But really, the office has been shrinking since 1997, according to Velasco. At the same time, ''Every single case has higher consequences'' than it did a few years ago. Truth in Sentencing laws, which made it necessary for offenders to serve longer portions of their sentences, and sentencing enhancement laws, which allow longer sentences under certain conditions, mean ''more is at stake in every case,'' Velasco said.

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