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Speedy trial unlikely at Cook County Jail

Monday, June 28, 2004
Daily Southtown

The right to a speedy trial is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but that doesn't mean you're going to get one in Cook County.

The average inmate in Cook County Jail spends 216 days waiting for a trial. And remember, these are individuals who haven't been convicted of anything; they are charged with crimes and waiting for justice.

Chicago is a big city, and its suburbs are just as big. Isn't it going to take awhile to get suspects into a courtroom? Perhaps, but state law says a defendant has the right to a trial within 120 days of his arrest if he asks for it.

And according to the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, the average stay in Cook County Jail in 2003 was far longer than the average stay in the nation's two largest cities. In New York, the average stay was 45 days; in Los Angeles, it was 35 days.

At Cook County Jail, some 33 inmates have been held for at least five years, Sheriff Michael Sheahan told staff writer Jonathan Lipman in last Sunday's Southtown.

The situation is bad for everyone. Obviously, no one should have to spend month after month in jail waiting for a chance to defend himself.

The longer a case is delayed, the more difficult or even impossible it becomes to prosecute. Witnesses disappear, die or simply forget what happened years earlier, reducing the likelihood that justice is served.

These interminable delays are unfair to the victims or their survivors as well. Justice delayed is justice denied, wherever you're sitting in the courtroom.

Prosecutors say defense lawyers are to blame for seeking and receiving excessive delays. In some cases, they say, defendants intentionally drag their feet because it's easier for family and friends to visit them in the county jail than in the downstate prison to which they'd be sent if they were convicted.

But defense lawyers say prosecutors delay cases by failing to turn over evidence or respond to defense motions in a timely manner. Outside agencies have criticized both prosecutors and defense attorneys for failing to fight for speedy trials.

One objective factor is that there are far more cases going through the system than prosecutors, public defenders and judges can handle quickly and effectively. Felony judges handled an average of 900 cases in 2003, according to the chief judge.

Solutions have been proposed: Increasing the budgets for the state's attorney's and public defender's offices; appointing more judges; expanding a program that allows nonviolent suspects to live outside the jail. Proposals have been made to form study commissions to look at all cases that get stuck in the system for longer than two years.

All of these suggestions might have some merit.

The point is that excessive delays and the resulting overcrowding at the county jail have become a serious problem, but one that is not prominent on anyone's radar screen. It should be.

This is a serious problem that hasn't been given the priority it deserves. The longer it festers, the more damage is being done to inmates, victims and society in general. In the long run, failing to fix it will be far more costly than doing nothing.

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