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Editorial: Illinois Supreme Court, help Cook County
Backlog of cases, jail overcrowding cheat defendants, crime victims and taxpayers

Friday, September 20, 2013
Chicago Tribune

When a backlog of criminal cases accumulated in New York City, court officials put a bulldog in charge: State Supreme Court Justice Patricia DiMango. In less than a year, she has turned a sluggish system into a fair but efficient assembly line of justice, disposing of hundreds of cases that had lingered in Bronx courts for two years or more.

That's precisely the outcome Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle hopes to achieve in her latest effort to reduce the case backlog in Cook County. Impatient with Chief Judge Timothy Evans' hands-off approach to a slow-moving court system, Preckwinkle in a Sept. 12 letter to the Illinois Supreme Court asks for help:

"During my tenure, I have been disheartened to discover that our County's administration of justice is not in accordance with the standards the residents of the State of Illinois both deserve and are entitled to under the law," she writes. "In many aspects, Cook County is far behind many of our sister counties in the administration of court services."

Specifically, she wants the Supreme Court to assign a judge from outside Cook County to help clear the backlog of criminal cases, some of which have been meandering through the system for years. Preckwinkle also wants a member of the Supreme Court to oversee a commission that would make recommendations toward long-term solutions.

Cook County's case backlog and dangerously overcrowded jail aren't new problems. What is new is a County Board president taking an evidence-based step to involve the Supreme Court, which holds administrative and supervisory authority over Cook County's courts.

The Supreme Court hasn't said whether it will intervene. We hope it does.

As we outlined in an Aug. 29 editorial ("Judge Evans, be an enforcer"), Evans, who has served as chief judge since 2001, hasn't made the case backlog a priority:

The chief judge has made some creative reforms and has generally sound priorities. But what's sorely missing is a sense of urgency. He needs to be the enforcer on his judges; his judges need to be the enforcers in their courtrooms. For starters, those judges all need to put in a full day's work.

Evans doesn't lean on his judges to be more efficient. He prefers to let justice unfold at its own pace and blames prosecutors and defense attorneys for delaying cases.

That laissez faire leadership style is unfair to defendants, crime victims and taxpayers.

Evans also blames budgetary restraints for his slow-moving system. But as Preckwinkle points out in her letter to the Supreme Court, the assignment of five additional judges to the criminal courts hasn't reduced the backlog. Money won't solve this problem.

It's time for more aggressive action. That means Supreme Court intervention — and soon.

Evans might want to write off Preckwinkle's criticism as politically motivated. Their friction goes way back. When Evans served as a Chicago alderman, Preckwinkle ran against him three times and beat him in 1991.

But that's irrelevant. The statistical record on jail population and caseload inefficiency speaks for itself. More than 300 jail inmates have been waiting at least five years for their cases to conclude, according to Sheriff Tom Dart. Thousands more have been in jail for six months to five years while their cases lollygag through Evans' system. From 2007 to 2011, the jail served an average of 1,246 more inmates per day than in the previous five years. That costs taxpayers, as Preckwinkle often says, $143 per inmate each day.

We appreciate Preckwinkle's outreach to the Supreme Court. It's risky to stick your nose into a fellow elected official's jurisdiction. Most politicians are content to look away: It's his court. It's his system.

But this issue is too important to ignore.

Justices of the Illinois Supreme Court: Use your authority to appoint an outside judge. And please, choose a bulldog. Justice delayed is, yes, justice denied



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