IL Rights Groups Ask Cook County to Approve Funds to Ensure Fairness for Defense of Poor

Affiliate: ACLU of Illinois
November 13, 2000 12:00 am

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CHICAGO–Citing the need to insure fairness and equality in the Cook County justice system, three Chicago-based organizations appeared at a hearing today to ask the county board to approve funds that would ease a growing backlog of appeals cases.

“The under-funding of appeals in Cook County threatens the basic concept of guaranteeing effective legal representation during the appellate process, and creates a two tiered system of justice,” said Lauren Raphael, an American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney, in testimony prepared for the Finance Committee of the Board of Commissioners.

The MacArthur Justice Center also delivered testimony this morning, and in addition the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund expressed their strong support for the measure, noting its importance for the operation of the justice system in Cook County.

Raphael said that without additional funding, the two-tiered system would become more pronounced, creating “one that works efficiently for those with means to hire a private attorney and another, slower system for indigent defendants.”

Specifically, the proposal considered today, as part of the Board’s annual budgeting process, provides funding for an additional ten experienced lawyers to help deal with a serious backlog in the filing of appeals for indigent defendants.

The appeals process for indigent defendants in Cook County has been overloaded for years, the ACLU said. Statistical information provided to the County Board demonstrates that the problem is getting worse, and may reach crisis proportions unless more resources are committed to the appellate division in the Public Defender Office.

Currently, the Cook County Public Defender Office receives nearly 1,500 appointments each year. At current staffing levels, the Appellate Division in that office has a capacity for disposing of only 1,100 cases. Criminal appeals often are remarkably complex, with thousands of pages of documents and many issues in dispute.

The lack of capacity in the Appellate Division as currently funded, and the press of cases, has led to a backlog of more than 800 appeals in the County.

“Every defendant in Illinois — rich or poor — has the right to a reasonably timely appellate review of his or her conviction,” said Locke E. Bowman, Legal Director of the MacArthur Justice Center. “No defendant can be required to spend all or the majority of his sentence incarcerated while awaiting appellate review of a conviction that may be determined to have been invalid from the start.”

The organizations made clear that this issue must be a priority for the County Board. They noted that the delay caused by this situation is unfair to those who must languish in prison though they have legitimate grounds for appeal.

The groups also pointed out that the delay in filing and hearing appeals undermines the important work of the appeals process, including being able to unearth systemic problems in the criminal justice system. Finally, they made clear that under funding appeals opens up the County to lawsuits for failing to provide counsel in the appellate process, lawsuits that could result in significant financial judgments against Cook County.

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