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Study: Cook criminal justice system overwhelmed

Thursday, December 13, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Michael Higgins

Huge numbers of nonviolent drug offenders and mentally ill defendants have overwhelmed Cook County's criminal justice system, requiring new infusions of government spending to address the problem, a criminal justice advocacy group said in a report made public today.

Criminal court judges must grapple with excessive caseloads of more than 800 new cases a year, while public defenders can't turn down work no matter how busy they may be, the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice said in the report.

"A system operating beyond capacity and without the tools it needs for rehabilitation and treatment has a profoundly devastating effect on our community, businesses, and families, while destroying lives in the process," Malcolm Rich, executive director of the group's Criminal Justice Project, said in a statement.
The group spent two years studying the county's criminal courts and its main building at 26th Street and California Avenue. It conducted more than 100 interviews and watched 160 hours of court proceedings.

The county's top criminal justice leaders – Presiding Criminal Court Judge Paul Biebel, State's Attorney Richard Devine and Public Defender Edwin Burnette – cooperated in the effort and provided data.

They are expected to discuss the report at a public forum at noon at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

The report argues for more staffing to reduce caseloads, improved treatment for drug offenders and more programs specifically geared toward mentally ill defendants.

It also recommends that legislators be required to estimate the cost of any new crime legislation and that a new, independent commission help the Cook County Board make criminal justice budgeting decisions.

"It is our hope that these recommendations serve as a model for bringing about real change in a system that is long overdue," Rich said.

Many of the report's recommendations would require new spending at a time when both the county and state are struggling with budget problems. The report argues for more funds for adult probation, four new drug courts and expanded mental health courts.

But other suggestions, such as improving how court personnel treat the public, won't require more funds, said Daniel Coyne, a defense attorney and Chicago-Kent law professor who worked on the report.

He argued that other recommendations, such as using drug treatment programs to steer more offenders out of the system, are designed to save money in the long run.

"If I invest a dollar today to avoid spending two dollars tomorrow, it's a net gain," Coyne said.



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