Ed Kuske has been a court advocate the past 12 years, and making sure North Side crime victims get to hearings is perhaps the toughest part of his job.
It’s about to get harder.
The brown brick courthouse at Belmont and Western avenues where Kuske regularly works closed Friday, along with a branch on the South Side, sending victims, witnesses and defendants to other courthouses an hour or more away.
Kuske, a longtime Uptown resident and community policing representative, believes victims send a powerful message to prosecutors and judges about how crime personally affects them. Making it more difficult for them to get to a courthouse will only make cases more difficult to prosecute, he thinks.
“We have a hard enough time getting victims to go,” said Kuske, 78, who worked for years with residents and business owners to cut down on drug and gang activity at his Lincoln police district on the Northwest Side.
Friday was the final day of operation for branch courthouses at 2456 W. Belmont Ave. and at 155 W. 51st St. that have been operating since the 1970s.
Beginning Monday, misdemeanor cases normally heard at the Belmont courthouse will be handled at the branch courthouse at 5555 W. Grand Ave., more than 5 miles away — or an estimated 50 minutes on two buses. Felony cases will be moved to the county courthouse in Skokie, more than 12 miles north of the old courthouse and a good hour and half using two buses and two CTA rail lines.
On the South Side, cases at the 51st Street courthouse will be split between courthouses at 727 E. 111th St. (nearly 9 miles away, an hour’s trip on a bus and the Red Line) and 3150 W. Flournoy St. (8½ miles away, an hour on the Blue Line and a bus).
Cook County officials announced the closures last summer after the controversial tax on sweetened drinks was repealed, eliminating about $200 million from County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's spending plan.
Shuttering the two branches is expected to save the county $9.2 million in repairs, maintenance and upgrades, some needed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to a statement from Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ office.
Court officials have posted signs announcing the changes and tips on how to get to the new courthouses, creating a “reminder system” in which defendants can receive text messages or phone calls.
“We made these adjustments in a way that keeps the cases as close to where they originated as possible,” said Pat Milhizer, spokesman for Evans.
She acknowledged that the move to Skokie is “the one exception.” But Milhizer said moving felony preliminary hearings there was “logical” because those cases normally end up at that courthouse.
Kuske believes the loss of convenience of a neighborhood courthouse will dispirit victims already traumatized.
“This is going to put a nail through it,” said Kuske, who has worked to reduce crime in his once-crime ridden ward for nearly 30 years. “What’s going to happen is you’re discouraging citizens from going to court because it’s too onerous to go that far.”
Kuske isn’t alone with his concerns.
“If I’m a victim in Lakeview ... I’ve got to go Grand and Central?” said Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th, who said Preckwinkle never addressed his questions about the closures. “There’s a person who doesn’t even know where Grand and Central is. They’re like, ‘I might not even feel safe getting to Grand and Central.’
“It’s just so inaccessible to have us travel by public transit, or even private vehicle one hour to two hours each way,” Tunney said. “You can quote me — it’s crazy.”
Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli, whose office represents criminal defendants, expects problems as victims, witnesses and defendants adjust to longer commute. She’s also concerned that judges at the new courthouses will issue arrest warrants for clients who are tardy.
“We all have to agree this is going to be very taxing on the people who are coming to court and it’s going to take some time,” Campanelli said. “This will be standard operating procedure, but it’s going to take a few months.”
For her part, Campanelli said she’s willing to push back against warrants early in the transition.
Milhizer said judges will be “mindful of the changes.”
“For defendants who are late, a judge may decide to pass that case to the end of the call or later in the day, allowing the defendant more time to arrive,” she said. “It is also anticipated that judges will be slow to issue warrants due to these changes.”
In addition, staff will be at both closed branch courts to help direct defendants and ensure they receive free public transit cards as needed.
Tunney said he hopes there’s still time to find convenient alternate sites where criminal cases can be heard.
“My question is, so they have civil cases and some kind of criminal cases in the Daley Center,” he said. “How about the Daley Center? What about 555 W. Harrison (the domestic relations courthouse)? Give me something here, because what isn’t working is Skokie and Grand and Central.”