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Cook County Court Crisis
Delays cost $80 million a year

Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times
by Neil Steinberg

Time is money, the saying goes, and if you want to see a real life example of how days and weeks add up to some serious green — while endangering civil rights in the bargain — look no further than the Cook County criminal court system, whose bond court, through a combination of inefficiency, resistance to change and harsh prosecution, costs millions of dollar the county can’t spare.

At least according to two top Cook County officials.

How much money? Try about $80 million a year, which is spent housing prisoners who either should be let go pending trial or convicted and sent to state prison, but are stuck in Cook County Jail due to poor case management.

“It takes us so long to dispose of serious cases that we save the state $70 million in prison time, but it costs us over $300 million because the jail is so much more expensive than prison,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who has been trying to reform the criminal system, particularly bond court, where accused criminals are assigned a cash amount to allow them to go free from jail while their cases are pending.

That $300 million figure represents the entire jail operating budget. To get a figure of how much of that spending is unnecessary, examine the head count at the jail, which has about 10,000 inmates a night, plus 2,500 on electronic home monitoring.

Over the past six years, the average prisoner stay in the county jail has increased by more than a week.

“In 2007 it was 49 days, now it’s 57 days,” said Juliana Stratton, executive director of the Cook County Justice Advisory Council, part of Preckwinkle’s office. “That is significant. If we had the same numbers back then in 2007, we would have 1,500 to 2,000 fewer people in the jail.”

Using the accepted $143-a-day cost to house a prisoner, those 1,500 extra heads cost an extra $80 million a year. The reason: Prisoners are kept in jail who shouldn’t be there, because cases take longer than they should.

“Over the past six years there’s been a dramatic increase in the length of time it takes to dispose of cases,” said Preckinwkle. “You can look at how long it takes to dispose of a drug case. There’s no case management in the circuit court. No case management at all. You don’t know how long it takes individual judges. There’s no way to hold anybody accountable.”

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart echoes Preckwinkle’s views.

“Her and I are singing off the same page,” he said. “We have one of the longest length of stay in the country. Longer than New York, longer than Los Angeles, and it’s progressively getting worse.”

He said bond court hearings are the weak link in the system.

“The average time in bond court is 20 seconds,” said Dart. “How in God’s name can you have a thoughtful discussion in 20 seconds? Other than finding guilt or innocence, what more significant part of the judicial process is there than a bond hearing, deciding whether someone will be in this delightful place or at home with family? What can be more significant? And you give it 20 seconds. That’s just not right.”

Nor are bond court hearings so brief because of an enormous backlog of cases.

“That’s not true,” Dart said. “It isn’t like some poor judge earning $185,000 a year is in there for 12 hours. The bond hearing calls only last a few hours. That’s where my frustration is so great. We’re not asking judges to work eight, 10 hours. They go for two hours.”

Chief Judge Timothy Evans disputes Preckwinkle’s and Dart’s view of the court.

“I guess they’re running for re-election,” he said. “But the facts spell a different story.”

For instance, Dart is “incorrect” about the 20-second average, Evans said, because judges prepare beforehand in their chambers. “Our judges look at those files before the cases are called,” Evans said.

Evans said the problem is the entire court system is starved for money, which causes some to cut corners.

“The system is not adequately funded in order for justice to prevail,” he said. “One of the major problems here is some would put a price tag on justice. That’s a huge mistake.”

The fourth key official involved in this issue is Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. Preckwinkle’s office says her prosecutors request bonds that are inappropriately high.

“We see young people with no priors arrested at 17 and given a bond of $75,000,” said Rebecca Janowitz, special assistant for legal affairs for the Cook County Justice Advisory Council, noting that often the bonds are later adjusted downward. “They aren’t able to get a decent bond when they first go up, but they follow the case, and a week later they file a motion to reconsider the bond, and we’ve been getting some very good success there.”

Alvarez’s chief of staff, Dan Kirk, said prosecutors inform judges of three things: the facts of a case, the nature of a defendant’s criminal history and any record of failing to appear in court. “It is judges who make the decisions about what kind of bond to set,” said Kirk. “Seldom do assistant state’s attorneys request a specific amount to the judge.”

Kirk said that Alvarez and Preckwinkle can’t even agree on what a violent offender is.

“The president’s definition of a non-violent offender is someone who is non-violent in the present case,” he said. “They completely ignore if that a person has a violent criminal history. The Cook County State’s Attorney does not define that person as a non-violent offender just because they weren’t violent in a specific case. You’re creating a fiction. We cannot and won’t abide by that.”

Thus — rightly or wrongly — suspects find themselves incarcerated, sometimes for months, for the inability to pay as little as a few hundred dollars.

To have any hope of getting a low bond, defendants must be able to communicate their situation to a public defender, who has a handful of minutes to grasp their case before both go before a judge.

“We see anywhere from 250 to 320 clients a day,” said Parle Roe-Taylor, chief of the 1st Municipal Division of the Cook County Public Defender’s office. With a staff of seven, that means about 50 cases per lawyer per day. Do the math. Judges sometimes never learn that a defendant is penniless.

“We make every effort to see every client,” said Roe-Taylor. “We don’t control how much time we get. If a bond is $3,000, you have to come up with $300, you have family members trying to take up a collection even to get that little bit of money. We make an effort to learn that, but we don’t always have family members in court. Sometimes that works out, most times it doesn’t.”

Dart and Preckwinkle both have been advocating for an American University study calling for better management of time standards and case flow.

“Everyone has the report,” Dart said. “No one is using the report. It’s so commonsensical. It basically says we should use differentiated case management. A murder case takes longer than a stolen car case.”

Standards for various case lengths should be established, he said, and judges who take too long for their cases would face pressure to improve.

“Peer pressure forms that will move cases along,” Dart said. “All of us are held accountable. Why should a group of people really have no accountability?”

Evans points out that his judges participated in the AU study, but it’s out-of-date, and they’re currently involved with a new study.

“That study is eight years old,” Evans said. “We have embraced each one of those recommendations. We have a differentiated case management system now. We do train our judges.”

Evans said Preckwinkle and Dart are just trying to “divert one’s attention” from their own failings, such as the sheriff not having enough deputies on hand to open certain courtrooms. “They’re trying to save money at the expense of justice,” he said.

Why can’t these officials work together? Is any of this personal?

“I would hope not,” Evans said. “Not on my part at all.”




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