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Drug, Mental Health and Youth Courts Being Shortchanged $2 Million by Cook County

Monday, July 13, 2009
Chicago Public Radio
by Rob Wildeboer

If you've pleaded guilty to something like running a stop sign or speeding in Cook County in the last year you've probably had to pay a $135 in court fees. Some of the fees are earmarked for programs like drug court, mental health court and youth court services. The county has collected a couple million dollars for those three efforts over the past year but the money never actually gets to where it's supposed to go.

Kids who appear in juvenile court before Judge Michael Stuttley all have to listen to him list off his new rule.

STUTTLEY: Young men who appear before me have to be in a shirt and tie, dress pants, dress shoes, no blue jeans, no gym shoes. Young ladies have to be in a dress or skirt and blouse, the skirt got to be below the knees and no cleavage showing.

When the kids come in, he calls them by name, asks how they've been doing and remembers details about their last court appearance. The kids smile and say, "Hey Stuttley" and genuinely seem to have affection for the man who sits in judgment over them. Stuttley helps them the best he can but his court is overcrowded. One solution is mediation, where a trained volunteer sits with a victim and an offender and they talk the issue out.

STUTTLEY: You'd be surprised sometime when the victim has the opportunity just to eyeball that offender and express in their own words how they was effected. It's amazing.

And Stuttley says it's also amazing how much the mediation can cut down on the number of cases that are clogging his overburdened docket. Stuttley has about a hundred and 30 volunteer who have gone through a 45 hour training to be mediators and now all he needs is some money.

STUTTLEY: Not a lot of money. If we had $80, 85,000, we could run the program and we have mediators who have been trained at no cost, no cost to us whatsoever, it's just the clerical expense of setting everything up that we're looking for.

The money shouldn't be that hard to get. For a little more than a year, Cook County has been charging mandatory court fees of about a $135. So say you run a stop sign and plead guilty the judge may give you a nominal fine but then you still have to pay the $135 court fee. Five bucks from that is set aside for juvenile justice programs.

STUTTLEY: Can't nobody tell me where that money is. I've talked to the chief judge, I've talked to the state's attorney, I've talked to the presiding judge, I've talked to the county board. I've talked to everybody and nobody seem to know where the money is. And we talking about a substantial amount of money.
Just how substantial? In 2008, the clerk of the circuit court says 98,000 people paid the $135 fee. So $5 times 98,000 that's close to half a million dollars, more than enough for Stuttley to run his program. To find out where all that money is I talked to…

FASHINA: Wasiu Fashina, Chief Financial Officer, Comptroller for the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County.

Fashina seemingly knows everything about the money that passes through the office.

FASHINA: We distribute our funds based on Illinois statute and Illinois statute says in order for a fund to receive its own money it has to be reconciled with the clerk of the court Act.

Yeah, I didn't really get that the first time around either but Fashina explains. He says the clerk can only give out money as explicitly laid out in a state law called the clerk of court act. So while the cook county board passed a law that allows the clerk to assess and collect a $5 fee for youth court services, Fashina says the legislature needs to pass a second law so the clerk can actually distribute the money. Such a law is awaiting the governor's signature, but for the past year all the money collected to help troubled teens, Fashina says it's gone into the county's general revenue fund.

SUFFREDIN: I'm surprised to hear this and no one in the clerk's office has ever mentioned this to us.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin sponsored the ordinance that set up the $5 youth court fee. He also sponsored similar fees for drug court and mental health court. They've all been collected and none of the money has been paid out for the intended purposes. In all, we're talking about a couple million dollars and that numbers rising as collections continue. Suffredin says the state's attorney advised him as he wrote his ordinances and he's not sure the clerk's office is interpreting the law correctly.

SUFFREDIN: We will get this money back for the purpose it's intended.

Suffredin says he's going to look into what happened this week and if the clerk didn't follow the intent of the law passed by the county board, then he's going to punish the office by taking the money out of their budget next year.

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