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Chief Judge: Court Problems could be solved

Monday, October 21, 2013
by Mick Dumke

Judge Timothy Evans wants you to know that if anyone's playing a political blame game around here, it's not Judge Timothy Evans.

After all, he's not on the ballot until 2016, and in September his colleagues backed him for his fifth term as chief judge of the Cook County circuit court.

"Who's running for something in the next year?" he says. "Not me."

But several others who've criticized him over court and incarceration policies are due to face the voters again next year, including county board president Toni Preckwinkle and sheriff Tom Dart. Maybe they need to make headlines, but Evans wants to be clear that he doesn't.

He swears that he doesn't even revile these people, even though everyone knows Preckwinkle unseated Evans for Fourth Ward alderman in a bitter 1991 race, and Dart has portrayed himself as a reformer battling the backward justice system since taking office seven years ago.

"There is no personal or political animosity toward anyone," the judge tells me, speaking of himself.

On the other hand, "I start from a civics point of view—what does separation of powers mean?" he says. "I don't think you'll have anyone say to you that Tim Evans is trying to run the president's office or the sheriff's office. But you'll hear people say that those offices are trying to say how my office should be run."

Evans is explaining this as we sit in a conference room adjoining his office in the Daley Center. The judge doesn't give many interviews, but after I nagged his assistant for several weeks, he agreed to talk with me about the complicated, often chaotic process of determining which criminal defendants should be jailed and which should be released prior to trial. Since most defendants have to come up with money to go free, those with means often get to go home, even after being charged with gun offenses or violence. The poor are stuck behind bars, at taxpayer expense.

Preckwinkle and Dart have both ripped Evans and other judges for not doing more to keep defendants out of jail. They say that judges should create a more thorough process of evaluating safety and flight risks, and then use alternatives to monetary bonds, including more orders for home confinement.

They didn't stop there. Dart recently ordered sheriff's police to search every car leaving the judges' parking lot. Though he said it's a necessary security precaution that has nothing to do with his disagreements with Evans, the judges don't buy it.

Preckwinkle, meanwhile, decided to go around Evans. She asked the state supreme court to investigate Cook County's criminal court system.

Evans and I spoke just before Preckwinkle's move, but even then he said the real problem was that neither the sheriff nor the president wanted to live up to their responsibilities. The sheriff has the authority to release more inmates on his own, Evans says, while the president has yet to find the funding for an independent office to conduct pretrial assessments.

"I asked for this before President Preckwinkle was around, and after President Preckwinkle was around," the judge says. "What I asked the sheriff to do, I asked before Sheriff Dart was around, and after."

He also raises the small question of whether they understand the structure of American government.

"There are three coequal branches—that's where I come from," he says. "Our founding fathers didn't want the other two branches to dominate the judicial branch."

When pressed, Evans will grant that some judges are nervous about letting too many defendants go, which might affect some of the outcomes in bond court, which results in more people in jail who might not need to be there. "There's the issue of being afraid of being the Willie Horton judge."

"The system we have now is better than it was but is not as good as it would be with more resources and time to do a full pretrial services system," he says. "The Preckwinkle people talk as if it's their idea, but I started talking about that when I first came in."

He then stresses that they're all striving for justice, even if some are striving harder than others.

In case anyone thinks otherwise, the judge wants to reiterate: "Politics is not an issue here."

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