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Report leads to changes in defense for juveniles

Monday, September 05, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Jeff Coen

Some Cook County public defenders have too little contact with the juveniles they represent, meeting with their young clients for just minutes before court hearings and habitually going home early, according to a study being released this week.

Cook County Public Defender Edwin Burnette requested the evaluation by leaders in the Northwestern University School of Law and other juvenile advocates, but said he was somewhat surprised by the results. Preparation in the office and case management need to be improved, the analysis found.

"It's a bad report card," Burnette said. "I didn't think it would be that bad."

The study found that the juvenile justice division of the Cook County public defender's office has shortcomings in key areas. Lawyers in the division have overwhelming caseloads, and the office suffers from a culture in which many attorneys head home in the middle of the afternoon when they might be taking calls from clients, their parents or guardians.

"The Juvenile Justice Division, as presently structured, is falling short with respect to the interviewing and counseling of its clients," the report states.

"Children in detention are often not visited by their lawyers between court appearances. Only cursory interviews are conducted of clients before detention hearings, perhaps the most critical stage of proceedings in Juvenile Court."

Many of the lawyers only spend 20 to 30 minutes with a client when their case is pending in Juvenile Court, the 46-page document contends.

"This is clearly an insufficient amount of time to develop a lawyer-client relationship and to gather all relevant information."

In an interview with the Tribune, Burnette said he long has been aware that the division is crucially important to his office, in the county and beyond. When it comes to juvenile justice issues, he said, many eyes are on Chicago.

"As Cook County goes, so goes the nation," Burnette said. "It's an important mission. We work with youngsters no one else cares about."

Burnette said he requested the study in July 2003, and it was delivered about a year ago. Some improvements already have been made, he said, but he added that it was time to make the report public to increase transparency as additional changes are implemented.

The office will change the culture that has allowed some lawyers to leave early, limiting their effectiveness in dealing with young clients.

County Board President John Stroger said he has been briefed on the document and has confidence in Burnette.

"I think, definitely, our lawyers should be better prepared, and Mr. Burnette has said he is working in that manner to train them," Stroger said.

Stroger said he understands that some of the problems could be addressed by hiring more attorneys, but that budget constraints will make such moves impossible for the time being.

Tom Geraghty, a Northwestern lawyer who helped lead the evaluation, called it "extraordinary in county government" that such a report would be made public.

"I think it should be stressed: Ed asked for this report," Geraghty said. "It was a bold step."

Geraghty said those who evaluated the office's juvenile justice division say it should be in a leadership role in representing Cook County children. Its lawyers can ensure that social workers are involved in cases and that clients are connected to schools and mental-health services.

"One of the constraints is a lack of a broader vision of how the public defender's office can serve the community," he said.

Local experts who did not participate in the study said its results were not a shock.

"I would not be surprised to read a report that identifies systemic problems, such as lawyers who are overtaxed and who do not have investigative resources," said Bruce Boyer, director of Loyola University Chicago's ChildLaw Clinic.

Most public defenders are committed and care about their clients, Boyer said, but some may leave something to be desired.

"People who are overworked and undertrained and not fully invested in the process, for whatever reason, can't supply meaningful support to their clients," he said.



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