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Guilty as charged: Courts aren't cutting it

Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Chicago Sun-Times
by Editorial

When the metaphorical gavel finally came down, the Illinois Supreme Court issued this stunning verdict: the Cook County Circuit Court needs to go to reform school.

The state’s top court on Friday found so many things wrong with the local courts, including a huge backlog of detainees waiting for their trials, that it issued 40 recommendations. And don’t be fooled by the benign word “recommendations.” For the Supreme Court to step in and say Cook County is not administering its courts properly is very unusual indeed. By no stretch of imagination was this report a vote of confidence.

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans issued a statement that he was “gratified” by the report. We hope that doesn’t mean Evans — widely seen as a go-along guy who is averse to telling lackadaisical judges to do their jobs — thinks this report is something that can quietly be pushed aside. The courts system desperately needs a change, and this report should be the hammer to make that happen.

The Supreme Court-ordered audit by the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts zeroed in on the job of pretrial services, which is supposed to provide background information that judges can use to decide which suspects need to be locked up and which can be safely released while awaiting trial. Effective pretrial services can reduce jail overcrowding and recidivism. But the audit found that judges believe they can’t rely on the information they get from pre-trial services. That’s a stunning conclusion.

The statistics in the County Jail also are stunning. As of March 18, 1,345 people had been in for one to two years; 503 for two to three years; 187 for three to four years, and 142 for four to nine years. The average length of stay rose from 49 days to 57 from 2007 to 2012. People sit in jail just because they are poor and can’t make bail while others charged with more serious crimes are freed because they have the cash. It’s not just the courts; what the state’s attorney and police do also play a role. But these numbers are going in the wrong direction.

As he has when other complaints have been raised about the courts, Evans trotted out his usual defense that the court system’s problems can be traced to budget cuts. He’s right that his budget has been cut, but he’s wrong to use that lame excuse. Judge Evans can still do much to fix problems he’s long ignored. Many of the audit’s recommendations wouldn’t cost anything to implement.

The system has many fine judges who are working hard, but it also has judges who aren’t. The lights go off in too many courtrooms shortly after lunch. Especially when good golf weather comes around. In one inexcusable case, a judge waited five years after a civil trial was fully completed to arrive at a decision.

Evans seems to think there’s not much he can do about those things because full judges are independently elected. Nonsense. Be a real “chief judge” or step down.

We’ve seen too much fighting over turf among the county’s elected leaders. Evans and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who in September asked the Supreme Court to step in, have been political rivals since the 1980s and ’90s, when Preckwinkle repeatedly challenged Evans for his 4th Ward City Council seat before finally beating him. Preckwinkle has had public disagreements over Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s and Evans’ budgets. And Evans and Dart have publicly sparred over the County Jail’s electronic monitoring program.

Any court system as large as Cook County’s — one of the largest unified court systems in the world — is going to have problems. But the Cook County courts have managed to snarl themselves in inefficiency to a remarkable degree. The Supreme Court audit is a signal that it’s time to change.

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