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Officials say budget cuts would run too deep

Friday, December 21, 2007
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Stephanie Potter

Proposed 10 percent cuts to Cook County's 2008 budget would have a devastating effect on the criminal justice system, officials told the county board at a budget hearing Wednesday.

Public Defender Edwin A. Burnette said the cuts would mean the loss of 69 attorney positions, while State's Attorney Richard A. Devine put that figure at 143 attorney positions cut from his office.

Burnette said a 10 percent cut would amount to $5.5 million for his office. He said his office is already stretched thin, with caseloads well above national standards.

''We have fought very hard to keep ineffective assistance of counsel from becoming a reality,'' Burnette said. ''As resources continue to decrease, we risk losing this battle. Staffing at 1989 levels with 2007 caseloads is quite frankly wearing my people down.''

Burnette said the projected budget cut would mean the deletion of 14 vacancies and layoffs of 55 other attorneys. Burnette said the layoffs would mean there would be no public defenders available to staff misdemeanor courts throughout the city of Chicago, and no public defenders to represent county residents facing the termination of their parental rights.

However, Burnette cautioned that the county is obligated to provide a legal defense in those cases, and said the cost of appointed counsel would ultimately be far greater than the $5.5 million saved by slashing his budget.

Yet Burnette ultimately may not have a choice.

''As you know, I am not an elected official,'' Burnette said. ''If this board says cut 10 percent, we'll cut 10 percent.''

The county board must close an approximately $238 million deficit and pass a 2008 budget by the end of February. Board President Todd H. Stroger's proposed $3.2 billion budget hinged in part on a 2 percent sales tax increase the board has not been willing to pass.

However, Brian Hopkins, assistant to Finance Committee Chairman John P. Daley, said a lesser sales tax increase is possible.

''We have divided viewpoints at this point,'' Hopkins said.

Devine's office decried what would amount to a $9.5 million in cuts. His chief of staff, Adrienne D. Mebane, said that figure is too large to come from any one division of the office, but Devine has not determined from where the cuts would come.

''We're taking it quite seriously,'' Mebane said.

Some officials, including Devine and Sheriff Thomas J. Dart, have said they would support some form of a tax increase.

''I'm not going to run and hide from the fact that you may need revenue enhancements, and I will support some of them,'' Dart told the committee Wednesday.

Chief Cook County Judge Timothy C. Evans said he told the committee that a cut of 10 percent would mean a loss of 104 positions in offices he controls. Those cuts would include senior management in the chief judge's office as well as juvenile probation workers, a problem because Evans is slated to soon take over control of the long-troubled Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

''We need more probation officers, not less,'' Evans said.

However, Evans may not have to make any cuts. He proposed an alternative plan under which the court would fill the gap via increased revenue, most of it from stricter enforcement of mandatory fees and costs in minor traffic cases.

Evans outlined seven mandatory fees, including drug court, mental health court and court supervision fees, that together total $41.60 per case. Evans said that in the past, judges have not specifically ordered all seven fees, instead issuing orders saying that all ''mandatory fees'' must be paid. However, clerks who later reviewed those orders did not know whether they had the authority to charge the court fees, so they went uncollected, Evans said.

Evans said by issuing a general order mandating all fees, he would expect an additional $11.69 million to be charged annually.

Evans said the committee was enthusiastic about his revenue proposals. But he was concerned about possible cuts to other criminal justice offices, including the state's attorney's office and public defenders office.

''This was not a scare tactic,'' Evans said. ''Daley said he considered the need to cut or bring in new revenue to be real.''

In a statement, Circuit Clerk Dorothy A. Brown said she opposed 10-percent across-the-board cuts ''without any type of analysis to determine whether necessary services will be eliminated.''

Brown said the cuts could mean that her office, and many others will be unable to meet their statutory requirements.

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