No more HOPE: Cook County court program halted after years of problems

HOPE court excerpts

Abigail Blachman / Injustice Watch

Excerpts from reports produced for Adult Redeploy Illinois regarding the Cook County HOPE court

This article was jointly reported by Injustice Watch and City Bureaua Chicago-based civic journalism lab. A version of this article appears on the Chicago Sun-Times online and in the Sunday print edition. 

Whispers filled the unusually full Courtroom 100 early this October where participants in Cook County’s intensive probation program, the HOPE court, waited one last time for the judge to arrive.

Public defender John Greenlees scanned the crowd, pointing and tipping off the captive audience to what would happen next. You are done, he told one defendant after another, to sighs and whispers. This is over, he said to a third. Others, he gave a thumbs-up. No more weekly check-ins or calling in, he said, shaking his head. No more Judge Jackie M. Portman-Brown.

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Just after lunchtime, Portman-Brown took to the bench one last time to make the announcement: After six years, the HOPE court was done and gone. Taxpayer funding for the program had been cut, and the county would not be swooping in to save it.

Despite that, the HOPE court had surpassed expectations with its success rates, Portman-Brown said from the bench as she reassigned defendants to different courtrooms and removed others from probation completely. More than one participant did a dance as audience members cheered.

But the rosy picture the judge touted belied the internal turmoil the court had endured over the last four years, problems documented in thousands of pages of records kept by the state that were obtained by City Bureau and Injustice Watch through the Freedom of Information Act.

The program was launched with over $1 million in state grant funding in 2011, in addition to county support, and funding continued for five years.

Because the program was state funded, unlike most Cook County court programs, it offered a rare look into the program and how it persisted despite years of warnings and misgivings from independent monitors.

The downside of hope

In 2011, the HOPE court was created with high hopes of keeping “high-risk offenders”—a term used to describe drug users and other offenders who appeared doomed to fail on probation without extra support—out of the overcrowded prison system.

Before long, internal records document that concerns arose about both the program and Portman-Brown’s management – recurrent issues that would plague the program for years. Officials on the board that oversees Adult Redeploy Illinois, the state program that funded the court, worried that efforts to address the HOPE court problems did not get to the core issues plaguing the court, records show.

Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans in October 201. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Chief Cook County Judge Timothy C. Evans in October 2017.

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans kept Portman-Brown in charge even after members of his staff were present at a meeting where HOPE court supervisors urged that she be removed.

An outside review of the program two years after its launch first revealed concerns that court officials lacked a system to identify offenders who could benefit from the intensive probation court and ensure that they were diverted into the program.

Adult Redeploy mandated steps to fix the problem, and by 2016 court officials had satisfied the state program that the issues were addressed.

But another outside review that the state program arranged in 2016, this one conducted by the independent research and advocacy organization Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, cited a different problem: Several members of the court staff, including attorneys, probation officers and their supervisors, portrayed Portman-Brown as a vindictive bully who would at times punish offenders to spite attorneys with whom she argued.

In July 2017, another survey followed, with results that supported the Appleseed findings. Several team members still felt the problems with Portman-Brown persisted. More than one third of those surveyed did not even respond, citing their fear of retaliation by the judge.

One respondent wrote that the state needed to take “a serious look at Judge Portman[-Brown]’s ‘leadership’ & they [sic] way that she runs this program.” The respondent complained that the state had “done nothing” outside of requiring corrective action by the court, which had not addressed the problem.

This March, Adult Redeploy decided to cut off future funding for the HOPE court, according to emails between its executive director Mary Ann Dyar and Cook County court staff.

Since the court’s closure, Portman-Brown has presided over a deferred prosecution call and worked as a floating judge at the criminal courthouse filling in for other judges who are absent.

Dyar, through her spokeswoman Cristin Evans, declined repeated requests for an interview. In an email, Evans said Adult Redeploy concluded that the HOPE court “did not serve its population of probationers as intended.”

Chief Judge Evans, through a spokesman, declined repeated requests for an interview over a period of three weeks. After being sent key documents on which the reporting relied, Evans would only answer questions submitted in writing.

Portman-Brown, who also declined an interview, said in a written emailed statement that Chicago Appleseed’s report mischaracterized the comments of the HOPE court team. The program, she contended, was a success.

Hoping for help

Chanell and son

Photo courtesy of Kalonda Fisher

Chanell Polk and son Khariyo.

Writing from behind the prison walls of the Logan Correctional Center this August, 27-year-old Chanell Polk wondered, after all this, whether going through the HOPE court had really helped her at all.

She had been charged with felony possession of heroin with the intent to sell the drug. By agreeing to probation, she thought she had signed on to be aided in her attempts to stay drug free and out of prison. And in Portman-Brown’s intensive probation program, she asked for anger management and more treatment, she said. That help never came.

Instead, Polk would spend 162 days, nearly six months, in Cook County Jail after testing positive for marijuana and leaving home while on court-ordered home confinement. In July, Polk was dropped from the HOPE court, and  the mother of three was sent to a prison downstate to serve out the rest of her three-year sentence. All for a crime that she had committed when she was 21.

The HOPE court was designed to keep defendants like Polk out of the state’s prisons. It is modeled on a successful Hawaiian program from which its name derives: Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement program.

The program employs both carrot and stick. When probationers break the rules, they can expect swift and certain punishment like community service hours and jail stays. But, they also get a plethora of second chances, and are provided with therapy, drug treatment and other services.

Retired Circuit Court Judge Steven S. Alm, who created the Hawaii program, described how a judge succeeds in HOPE court: “You’ve got to be consistent,” Alm said. “That’s the key to this.”

Alm’s program set specific and predictable sanctions for mistakes the probationers often made: Show up late to Alm’s court, expect to spend the next few hours in a cell in the courthouse with no reading materials or a cell phone; Fail a drug test and take responsibility, spend two days in jail; Fail a drug test, get lab confirmation, but deny using drugs, spend 15 days in lockup; Skip out on drug testing altogether, get a warrant issued for your arrest, and spend 30 days in custody.

Judges need to apply those sanctions uniformly and work well with the rest of the court team, Alm said. “If the judge is not on board,” he said, “it’s not going to work.”

Questions of fairness

Questions of arbitrary and inconsistent treatment of defendants persisted under Portman-Brown’s watch.

Jackie Portman-Brown

Abigail Blachman / Injustice Watch

An illustration of Cook County Circuit Judge Jackie M. Portman-Brown.

Best practices indicated a three- or four-day jail sanction for a mistake, though Cook County’s HOPE court was regularly leaving defendants in custody for seven days, according to the 2016 review by Chicago Appleseed’s criminal justice policy analyst Ali Abid. There were also indications that Portman-Brown was requiring a drug-free urine test before releasing an inmate from custody, which Abid noted was not in line with best practices.

Though the court team created a chart to try to make the sanctions and incentives predictable, Abid wrote in his conference notes from January 2017 that every person he interviewed in researching this issue told him that resource had never been utilized.

Public defender Greenlees, according to Abid’s conference notes, said that when Portman-Brown was pressed to follow the guidelines for punishment and rewards, the judge responded by saying she “never agreed to them.”

Two supervisors with the State’s Attorney’s office, Emily Cole and Mark Kammerer, had made an appeal to Portman-Brown in August 2016, asking that she follow best practices. That effort, according to Abid’s notes, went nowhere.

Most defendants in Cook County’s version of the HOPE court completed the program successfully. And many, like Polk, made mistakes like testing positive for drugs, not coming to court or getting arrested on new charges. Some participants racked up numerous violations—in at least one case, 17 of them—without being sent to prison.

Chanell Polk

Emily Hoerner / Injustice Watch

Chanell Polk, left, and partner Kalonda Fisher.

In the five years since her arrest, Polk said she picked up no new charges. She had gone on a years-long hiatus from the court when she and her family moved to Minnesota, and in total Judge Portman-Brown found she had violated her probation four times.

Polk wrote in a letter to reporters this August that Judge Portman-Brown dispensed justice unevenly, playing favorites. “She had her pick of the people in that program she wanted to help,” Polk wrote. “I just wasn’t one of them.”

The Illinois Department of Corrections refused to permit reporters to interview Polk in person.

Bully behind the bench

HOPE court surveys

Abigail Blachman / Injustice Watch

Excerpts from Adult Redeploy Illinois surveys of HOPE court team members from 2015 and 2017.

Once or twice a week before the court’s closure, Judge Portman-Brown held her HOPE court call. In a feat of emotional gymnastics, the judge quickly shifted between glee, concern and disappointment as she decorated and disciplined the defendants before her.

Upon successfully completing his probation one day this August, the judge congratulated Johnaten Lattimore, highlighting his “rockstar status.” In awarding him a gift card, she broke into song, humming the popular McDonald’s slogan with a dah-dah-dah-DAH-dah.

But later, in an uncomfortable exchange in open court, her apparent frustration with public defender Greenlees bubbled over. She had talked over the attorney on several occasions throughout the court session as he tried to provide explanations as to why his clients were late or not compliant with the judge’s orders.

In one case, his defendant was running late. Would the judge wait?

Slowly, in a jerky robotic tone, Portman-Brown loudly expressed sounds of disagreement before concluding, “Ah. No.”

The exchange displayed some of the dysfunction that had started to take hold in the HOPE court about three years earlier. When Adult Redeploy conducted its first survey of the HOPE court team members in fall 2015, most concern was focused upon whether the right population was being reached.

But mixed in were a smattering of complaints about the judge. Portman-Brown left one staff member feeling “worthless,” and was described as a bully. Another cited Portman-Brown as the reason for high turnover on the team.

Those concerns ballooned in the late 2016 and early 2017 review done for the state by Abid, portraying Portman-Brown as a spiteful bully who refused to follow best practices and was willing to retaliate against probation officers and attorneys, sometimes at the expense of a defendant’s liberty. In one report, Abid recounted “abusive” emails, calls and meetings HOPE court team members said they had endured from Portman-Brown.

Assistant State’s Attorney Supervisor Cole and Adult Probation Deputy Chief Carolyn Lisle confirmed that “bullying behavior” by the judge had happened to them personally, according to conference notes included in Abid’s report. Another Adult Probation supervisor, Donald Weimar, confirmed that all his probation officers reported such behavior.

HOPE court staff also described instances where Portman-Brown imposed increased sanctions on defendants not because of their behavior in the program, but “due to arguments with team members and to spite them,” Abid wrote.

And Portman-Brown, in a case described in one of the reports, had gone against Cook County’s sanctuary city ordinance in attempting to release a jailed participant in her program to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in early 2016.

Abid’s reports included an official recommendation from representatives from the public defender, state’s attorney and probation department to replace Portman-Brown with a different judge.

Those representatives, one of Abid’s reports noted, agreed with and confirmed his findings.

Judge disputes reports findings

In her email response to requests for an interview, Portman-Brown called the reports Abid did for Adult Redeploy “unauthorized,” and said she could not respond to specific details in the reports because she had never been provided them. After being sent copies of the reports, Portman-Brown did not respond further.

In a lengthy undated email to Abid, obtained through a public records request, Portman-Brown did appear to have read at least some of what Abid had produced. The judge dismissed Abid’s findings from interviews with the HOPE court team as a “one sided version” in the email, and raised issue with 10 specific conclusions spelled out in that report by directly quoting or referencing it.

Cook County Criminal Courthouse

In her statement to reporters, Portman-Brown wrote that HOPE court team members were gathered for a meeting, which she was not present for, where they explained that Abid’s findings “were not true and accurate and were a mischaracterization of what they said.” She also wrote that the HOPE court team was asked if they wanted to be assigned to a different judge’s courtroom, to which they all replied no.

“The court appreciates any constructive criticism,” Portman-Brown wrote in responding to Abid. “However, that information should be grounded in fact and some investigative steps to ensure that you are reporting accurately. More importantly what is reported should reflect the entire story and not appear to be jaded or one sided with you only reporting what it is that you feel is important or focusing on.”

Months after Abid’s reports, Adult Redeploy sent out another anonymous survey for the HOPE court team to complete. According to quarterly meeting minutes from August 2017, Adult Redeploy officials explained that fewer than two-thirds of the team agreed to complete the survey due to fear of retribution from the judge.

“Trust is completely gone,” one respondent wrote in that survey.

The wrong population, from the start

Initial worries about the HOPE court were based not on Portman-Brown but on whether the program was identifying defendants who would benefit from the program’s intensive probation.

In 2014, Loyola University criminal justice and criminology professors David Olson and Don Stemen published a review of the program’s operations. The two were hired by the Cook County Justice Advisory Council to review the court, according to Olson. The professors found that defendants not at risk of going to prison were being funnelled to the HOPE court.

Intensive probation programs like the HOPE court that require regular drug tests, check-ins with probation officers and jail sanctions, can harm defendants on probation for low-level felonies, Olson said in a recent interview.

Not administered properly, Olson said, funneling low-risk offenders into the HOPE court and other programs like it can do more harm than good to those defendants. Take, for example, a defendant on probation who tests positive for having used marijuana. That defendant might wait in jail for a week until the next court call, and lose his or her job as a result.

“What you’re doing is you’re either pissing money away, at best, or you’re subjecting low-risk people to an environment or conditions that might actually elevate their risk,“ Olson said.

Identifying the right population, though, remained an issue throughout the life of the program.

Forced and failed reform

In late 2016, Abid suggested the Cook County HOPE court apply for certification as a problem-solving court under the Illinois Supreme Court. Such certification would lead to oversight and evaluation and require that certain rules be followed.

Adult Redeploy left it to the court system to decide that issue. Chief Judge Evans, however, declined to take steps that would have required the court to move forward with that process, according to reports obtained through public records requests. The HOPE court would continue on its own, without a problem-solving court certification, using the Swift Certain and Fair model.

In the 2017 survey, team members expressed concern that Chicago Appleseed’s report had not led to improvements. “The program still struggles with fairness,” one respondent wrote. As Adult Redeploy threatened to cut off funding, the court made some improvements, the records show, though not as extensive or timely as the state program was demanding. The court finalized a policies and procedures manual, though later than the deadline Adult Redeploy had set.

After discussing those survey results at the August 2017 quarterly Adult Redeploy meeting, director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, John Baldwin, shared his experience in cutting programs that “do not work,” according to the meeting minutes.

By the following March, Adult Redeploy signaled they would no longer fund the HOPE court. Adult Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board voted to officially end funding for the HOPE court at a board meeting held on June 4.

Hopeful sendoff

On Portman-Brown’s last day of court, after all her defendants were assigned somewhere else and her HOPE program had been effectively shut down, the judge warmly congratulated the original members of the team from her perch on the bench as they stuffed their briefcases with files one final time and exchanged parting words and hugs, but quickly made it clear who she was not talking to. She interjected, the original team did not include Greenlees.

Greenlees pushed back, looking up at Portman-Brown, stating that he was one of the longest-running team members standing in the rapidly emptying courtroom.

“No,” Portman-Brown said. “It doesn’t matter, that’s not you. You are not an original member even if it was just one day after we started, you are not an original team member.”

With that, Portman-Brown walked out of the HOPE court for the last time, laughing.