The Illinois Supreme Court will add 14 volunteer lawyers to help accelerate the appeals process of criminal cases.
The state’s high court launched a six-month program aiming to assist with clearing the backlog of Cook County appeal cases, which have been held for so long that some people finish their sentence before they win an acquittal, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. The pilot program will operate in Cook County and northern Illinois, with potential to expand statewide if proven effective.
“Similar programs have been used in other states to help reduce backlogs,” Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke said.
MacArthur Justice Center Executive Director Locke Bowman said while it’s a good sign that the court recognizes the problem, he thinks it needs to be addressed on an institution level.
“This is a problem that will eventually have to be addressed institutionally, in my opinion,” Bowman said. “Pro bono volunteers won’t, in the end, be sufficient to solve a backlog created by insufficient publicly funded appellate defense attorneys, I fear.”
In 2018, the Cook County state appeals court panel ruled on more than 1,300 criminal cases. Two-thirds of those cases were solved in at least 782 days, the longest wait time in Illinois, the newspaper reported. One of every 10 appeals takes longer than three years to decide. Adding to the delay, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office regularly seeks extensions for 180 days to return appeal responses due to attorney shortages, according to the Sun-Times.
A representative for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx asked the state Senate last week for $1 million to go toward hiring 10 entry-level prosecutors to handle appeals, according to a spokeswoman. State Appellate Defender James Chadd, whose office handles most of the criminal appeals in Cook County, also requested funding to add 10 staff attorneys and to also hire external lawyers.
“Every other little bit will help,” said Chadd, referring to the Supreme Court pilot program.