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Cook County courts need outside reformer

Sunday, September 15, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times
by Toni Preckwinkle

Cook County is home to the largest single site jail and unified court system in the country. As Cook County Board president, I don’t run the jail or courts, but I oversee the county’s budget, and when failures and delays in our justice system strain taxpayer resources I’m obligated to do something about it.

In my three years in office, I’ve been disheartened to determine that our county’s administration of justice does not live up to the standards residents deserve.

Having exhausted methods to get my criminal justice partners to work together, I have called on the Illinois Supreme Court to intervene.

Here’s why:

I have no choice but to rely on criminal justice leaders to uphold their duties to ensure the law is fairly and effectively applied. Cook County’s record is decidedly mixed.

There are numerous and systemic problems in our courts that lead to delays, lengthy and costly detention and reduced confidence in Cook County’s system of justice.

I’ve asked the Supreme Court to assign a judge who is not from Cook County to clear the backlog of criminal cases.

To help craft long-term solutions, I have asked the justices to establish a reform commission, headed by a member of the Supreme Court. I would like to see that panel authorize and oversee an external audit of Cook County courts. It would seek data on pretrial services, how cases move through the system, and how probation is used. And it would release that information to the public, so we all know how our resources are used.

There are people in our jails, waiting to have their cases heard, who have served more time than convicted criminals sentenced to prison.

Right now, more than 300 Cook County Jail inmates have waited at least five years for their cases to conclude. Those cases alone have cost taxpayers $78.2 million. What’s more, in the last six years, the average number of days inmates spent in the jail awaiting trial has dramatically increased, causing the population to swell.

While it’s clear this is a serious problem, we still need more information to understand why so many cases are stalled and how the system can be fixed.

Chief Judge Tim Evans has said he uses tracking software to see how judges perform. He has acknowledged it shows significant differences in the pace at which judges clear their caseload.

Yet, he has not — despite numerous requests from my office — publicly released that information.

Judge Evans also should share data on how probation is administered to determine the effectiveness of the department. That way the County can track pretrial assessments and conduct a quantitative analysis to determine why it is underused and why so few people are released on electronic monitoring or on bond.

You can’t change what you don’t measure.

Supreme courts in other states, including New York and Pennsylvania, have stepped in to established reforms, demand accountability and ensure the fair administration of justice.

Again, I am calling on the Illinois Supreme Court to ensure that the Cook County judiciary is doing its best to administer justice fairly and efficiently. It is in the ultimate interest of all Cook County residents who foot the bill for our criminal justice system. I anxiously await the justices’ decision.



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