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Cutting Cook County justice looks like a bad bargain

Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Eric Zorn

Prosecutors and public defenders in Cook County spend all day, every day, at odds with one another. But on the 21 percent budget cuts in every department ordered for next year by County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, they're in agreement.

"It would be devastating," said Public Defender A.C. Cunningham Jr. " (left) We'd be in an impossible situation."

It "would be devastating to our work force and to our ability to aggressively and effectively prosecute crime," added Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez (far right) through her spokeswoman.

Sheriff Tom Dart (near right), whose duties include overseeing jails and policing courtrooms, also offered a dire forecast. "If we're forced into draconian cuts, the criminal justice system will come to a screeching halt," he said. "The impact will be dramatic."

Yes, it does sound like routine bureaucratic turf protection, just the sort of Chicken Little squawking we always hear from public officials whose budgets are threatened.

But consider:


Because of previous cuts, the number of assistant public defenders is already nearly 30 percent lower than it was in 2004.

Those who handle misdemeanor cases carry an average annual caseload of 2,200, more than five times the annual load of 400 recommended by the American Bar Association and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. Those who handle felony cases carry an average of 235 a year, while the recommended load is 150 cases.

Alvarez said her office has already "sustained an overall budget cut of 31 percent" since 2000 and that her prosecutors currently "have higher caseloads than nearly all other comparable urban jurisdictions across the country."

Dart's courthouse security staff is 23 percent smaller than it was in 2006, and he said in some buildings he has one sheriff's deputy (commonly called bailiffs) covering up to eight courtrooms at a time.

The problem that county budget hawks face is that some of these criminal justice problems are baked into the constitutional cake. Roughly 250,000 defendants each year — 90 percent of them facing misdemeanor charges — can't afford a lawyer and wind up on the public defender's client list.

Those who can't post bond wind up at the jail, where efforts to cut the $117-per-day cost of housing each inmate are hampered by a county agreement with the federal courts to increase staffing and improve squalid and unsafe conditions.

Alvarez had this to say: "Our staffing levels in the prosecution of misdemeanor cases such as DUI and domestic violence cases continues to erode, and it is an issue that I am deeply concerned about. … There are long delays and increased continuances, which is not the quality of service that our victims deserve. Some victims simply give up on the process."

President Preckwinkle's office didn't return a request for comment Tuesday, but in recent weeks she has spoken of finding "savings through creativity and collaboration" in an era of "shared sacrifice" across county departments. She has said she believes this can be done "without reducing the quality of services."

Sheriff Dart, like other department heads, is dubious. He said the inevitable result of dramatic reductions across the board will be a system stretched so thin that lower-level offenses — nonviolent misdemeanors — will be effectively decriminalized.

Public Defender Cunningham said if he's forced to implement such cuts, clients who do go to trial will spend more days in jail at county expense before their day in court and be represented by lawyers who have had less time to prepare.

Not to say that there isn't fat to be trimmed from the overall Cook County budget. But to say that our prosecutors, public defenders and sheriffs are already running fairly lean operations. And when it comes to justice, we're going to get what we pay for.


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