The waiting gameCOOK COUNTY JAIL | Hundreds of inmates have been awaiting trial for years
Monday, July 07, 2008
by MARY WISNIEWSKI
Uvion Junior was stabbed 20 times during a fight last month involving 20 inmates in Cook County Jail. It wasn't his first jailhouse injury.
Junior, 28, was stabbed in a fight in 2003, according to his wife, Deandria Junior. He has been awaiting trial on murder charges for six years -- making him one of the longest-serving inmates at Cook County.
Long-term inmates like Junior are the most likely to be involved in jail violence, according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. And while the number of long-term inmates at County has fallen over the last five years, it remains a costly problem -- eating up millions of dollars for food and shelter, delaying justice for both victims and defendants, and making conditions tougher for everyone inside.
"Whenever we have major problems here at the jail . . . it almost always [involves] the people who are here the longest," said Dart. "These are people with nothing but time on their hands."
Junior is one of 36 Cook County inmates who have been awaiting trial more than five years. A total of 430 prisoners have waited two years or more.
Prosecutors, public defenders and criminal court judges began meeting in 2003 to bring the number of delayed cases down, according to First Assistant State's Attorney Bob Milan. The percentage of Cook County inmates who have waited more than a year for trial has fallen to 13.7 percent this year from 18.3 percent in 2003.
"We created a sense of urgency among all the judges, the defense bar and the prosecutors," Milan said.
But there's a long way to go, said Charles A. Fasano of the John Howard Association, a prison reform group.
Cases get delayed for various reasons. Critics say both prosecutors and defense attorneys game the system, with prosecutors wanting time to find witnesses, and defense attorneys hoping evidence will fade. Some county judges are reputedly slower than others at moving cases along. The inmates waiting the longest tend to face the most serious charges.
One way to speed up cases is to add judges. The Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice last year found that Cook County criminal courts should have 65 judges, but have just 40.
That number's about to go to 45. "The introduction of five additional judges will go a long way to alleviate the problems of old cases," said Criminal Court Presiding Judge Paul Biebel.
Also needed are more prosecutors and defense attorneys, Fasano said. Judges need ways to enforce case timelines, even if both parties agree to delays, said Fasano.