The Illinois Supreme Court released a critical and unprecedented report Friday into how Cook County’s court system handles criminal suspects, pointing to a lack of leadership and basic understanding of certain court services that has contributed to defendants unnecessarily awaiting trial behind bars.
The audit comes as Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans has fallen under increased scrutiny over how he has managed of one of the largest court systems in the country.
The review focused on pretrial services — a unit within the court’s adult probation department. The unit was originally designed, in part, to ease jail overcrowding by helping judges decide whether defendants should be kept in custody or released while their criminal cases move through the courts.
Chicago police take 65 to 100 defendants every day to prisoner lock up for bond court at the county’s criminal court building. Once there, about 10 pretrial officers have several hours to screen and interview the defendants, gathering information on their criminal history, mental health and living arrangements.
The bond court judge, who must consider the likelihood that the defendant will show up for future court hearings or get rearrested if released from custody, is supposed to use that report to help determine bail.
The audit, however, found that time constraints, access to information and basic training, among other issues, often compromised the pretrial reports and many judges view them as “too limited, and largely unverified.”
“The reliance upon the work of pretrial services is generally dismissed or minimized because of a lack of confidence in the credibility,” the report stated.
As a result, some defendants who could otherwise have been released from jail remain in custody, according to data provided in the audit.
In a statement, Evans said he already has initiated some changes in pretrial services, defended his overseeing of the department and blamed some of the problems on staff cuts and lack of money.
The number of pretrial staff positions has fallen from 179 in 1990 to 104, according to the audit, which noted that pretrial assessed about 25,000 defendants in 2013.
“Until adequate resources are committed to a pretrial services program, the program will always be imperfect,” Evans’ statement read.
The launch of the audit last year came amid growing tensions between Evans and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Sheriff Tom Dart over jail overcrowding and the backlog of criminal cases.
In September, Preckwinkle, who has argued that Evans and the judges he oversees haven’t done enough to make sure nonviolent offenders don’t clog the jail, wrote to the Supreme Court requesting that a judge outside Cook County be appointed to expedite delayed criminal cases.
Evans, however, has blamed Preckwinkle and the County Board, saying commissioners have stymied funding for hiring and that Dart, who runs the jail, could place more defendants on electronic monitoring.
Preckwinkle has challenged whether more funding is needed, and Friday praised the audit.
“This is about more than just a lack of leadership,” Preckwinkle said. “It is about the men and women who suffer when the system is allowed to fail.”
The Sheriff’s office also applauded the audit and the Supreme Court’s plan to appoint an administrator to oversee its implementation.“We are very encouraged,” said Cara Smith, executive director of the county jail. “We can go nowhere but up.”
The Supreme Court in September ordered the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts to conduct the audit after delaying Evans’ request for funding to hire 15 additional pretrial employees.
The 64-page report makes 40 recommended changes, including better sharing of information, such as defendant criminal histories; improved training of both judges and pretrial officers; and appointing a specific person within the adult probation department to head pretrial services. It states that additional staff would not be warranted unless the proposed changes are implemented.
On Monday, Evans removed the longtime head of the department, Jesus Reyes, following a Tribune investigation in December, which found that the department has lost track of hundreds of convicts and overlooked new crimes committed by offenders, some of whom went on to rape or kill while under the court's watch.
Reyes could not immediately be reached for comment about the report.