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The last place kids need to get the bum's rush

Sunday, September 11, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times

Of all the people who find themselves represented by the public defender's office, juveniles need the most special care. At the most basic level, they and their parents or guardians need to be given a clear idea of what they can expect in a courtroom, when their cases will be called -- and when they will have access to an assistant public defender. But for too long, they have been neglected by a system that requires too little of the lawyers assigned to them in terms of time and preparation.

If Cook County Public Defender Edwin Burnette has his way, the culture in which some juvenile lawyers regularly show up just before a court call and disappear right after it will soon be no more. Shortly after being appointed to the post in April 2003, having spent more than a decade as first assistant public defender, Burnette took the unusual and rather bold step of asking an outside body to assess the performance and structure of the juvenile division. While the six-person task force found the legal staff "experienced and capable" after conducting group interviews with about 30 assistant public defenders and speaking to judges and other officials, it found serious shortcomings in the areas of ethics, professionalism and leadership. Headed by Thomas Geraghty, director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic of the Northwestern University School of Law, it also found a glaring lack of training for lawyers representing children and specialized legal services for those children referred or transferred to criminal court.

It would be easy to assume the problem springs, at least in part, from an inability to attract the kind of talented, socially committed attorneys it wants when private firms are offering them far more money -- though Geraghty says there's no shortage of idealistic graduates seeking these kind of jobs. The evaluation finds fault in the division's policy of not making job offers to future legal eagles until they have passed the bar, which for most of them is a mere formality. There are other changes recommended by the task force, including instituting a case management system and a communications program, for which the juvenile division would need an approval of funds from the Cook County Board -- something unfortunately considered unlikely in tough budget times.

Beyond practical measures, though, is the more elusive challenge of overhauling the attitude and underachieving methods of those working out of the juvenile division. "That culture appears to be waning," said Burnette in his official response to the evaluation. We certainly hope he's right. If anyone can instill discipline and an aggressive work ethic, it's this ex-Marine. But as "hurt" as he said the attorneys were when apprised of the evaluation, behavioral patterns that can be characterized as a culture usually take a long time to break down. We would rather have heard the lawyers were mad and eager to correct the negative impression they had made. But Burnette certainly has taken an encouraging first step to improve the lot of juveniles processed in this system. The Cook County Board should support him as he continues down the path to real reform.


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