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Handwritten documents, Manila folders, carbon paper — welcome to Cook County criminal court

Monday, February 12, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Megan Crepeau

Every workday, attorneys enter criminal courtrooms across Cook County, put away their smartphones and operate in a world that their grandparents would have recognized: accordion-style Manila folders to hold paper documents, handwritten orders for judges to sign, even carbon paper to make copies of the paper filings.

“God help us all if the carbon didn’t take,” said defense attorney Alana De Leon, who had never used the outdated copying method — invented more than two centuries ago — before setting foot in a West Side branch court a few years ago.

While the throwback methods are the frequent butt of jokes — a county government official must have a relative who owns a carbon paper company, attorneys jest — critics say it is detrimental to the criminal courts’ productivity and keeping vital information out of public view.

“To a certain extent ... the lack of transparency kind of is the ugly product of the old system,” De Leon said. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily on purpose — to keep this information away from the average citizen — but it certainly is a consequence of that.”

Basic information about a criminal case — the charges, which judge is handling the case — is available only on computers at the courthouses themselves. And even then, the electronic record can be woefully incomplete — and often difficult for newcomers to navigate on antiquated computer systems.

Last week, Daeisha Robinson had little choice but to drive 14 miles from her Far South Side home to the Leighton Criminal Court Building, the county’s main criminal courthouse on the city’s Southwest Side, to find out about the charges her former boyfriend faced. It took the 25-year-old another hour before a private researcher in the circuit clerk’s office noticed her plight and looked up the case on the computer terminal.

If the charges had been brought in a collar county, Robinson wouldn’t have had to leave her house to learn of his charges or next court date. It would be available to anyone with an internet connection.

“It’s very stressful and confusing,” Robinson said. “They have every technology in the world available. They’re just not using their resources well.”

If longtime criminal defense attorney Barry A. Spector wants to get up to speed on a case, he runs into the same problems as Robinson. If a potential new client comes to his Evanston office seeking information about a loved one’s case, for instance, he can’t help without first going to a courthouse to learn the basic details, a frustrating, unnecessary delay, he said.

“That information should be available to the public,” Spector said. “But the public can’t get through the gatekeepers to get to it.”

Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown bristled at the suggestion that her office has been slow to adapt to the internet age, telling the Tribune in an hourlong interview last week that a complete overhaul of the criminal case management system is expected to be completed by March 2019.

Brown spoke of an “interactive” system in which much of the work performed by attorneys and judges in the courtrooms could be done electronically. Brown said her ultimate goal is to end the reliance on ink and paper.

Brown said her hands have been tied by the Illinois Supreme Court dragging its feet in allowing e-filing statewide in criminal cases for the first time just last year. She also blamed Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ office for blocking her from making basic docket information available online for criminal cases.

In an email, however, Evans’ spokesman, Pat Milhizer, denied Brown’s claim, saying his office would consider any such proposal from the circuit clerk.

Brown defended her efforts to modernize the court system, citing her efforts beginning in 2009 for clerks to make digital scans of court documents for viewing at public kiosks.

But the digital images in criminal cases are often missing or incomplete, attorney Spector said. That means he must still often track down the physical file for a full picture of a case’s history, sometimes traveling to a judge’s courtroom to do so. That would be next to impossible for the public to pull off.

“Can you imagine somebody just walking up and saying, ‘Oh, can you go in the back and get that file while the judge is on the bench or whatever?’ ” he said.

When the system is fully electronic, Brown said, safeguards will be in place to ensure that all files are appropriately scanned and available for public view.

The system will also allow attorneys to file documents electronically with the click of a mouse — standard practice in the federal courts for many years.

E-filing is also available for criminal cases in DuPage, McHenry and Will counties.

Brown said her critics forget how even more backward the circuit clerk’s office was when she first took office in 2000.

“When I got here, this clerk’s office didn’t even have an email system, we didn’t have voicemail,” she said. “So this system, along with the rest of the country’s case management systems, (is) in a transitory state of conversion.”

In the meantime, attorneys still struggle to find carbon paper that isn’t scratched up and faded. They also lament having to scramble sometimes from courtroom to courtroom to locate the proper paper forms they need.

And De Leon said it is still too difficult for attorneys — as well as the public — to get the information they deserve.

“It definitely is a consequence of this system that it is just not made to be user-friendly,” she said. “It’s not designed to be easily accessible.”

Twitter @crepeau

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