Lack of statewide oversight has led to excessive caseloads for Illinois public defenders, study says

Cook County public defender's office

Courtesy of the Cook County public defender's office

A sign outside the Cook County public defender’s office.

Public defenders across Illinois are struggling with excessive caseloads and a lack of independence that is negatively affecting their clients, according to a new study commissioned by the Illinois Supreme Court.

The study, which was released Tuesday, examined public defense in nine counties across the state. In all nine counties, which varied in population and demographics, public defenders lacked the necessary resources to provide the quality of representation required by the U.S. Constitution, the study found.

In Cook County, public defenders handling misdemeanor cases told the study’s authors that they had more than 2,000 cases per year. A public defender in Champaign County said they had 50 pretrial conferences in one day and 100 scheduled for the next day. And a DuPage County public defender said he was only able to get through 70% of the evidence provided by the prosecution in any given case.

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“You might have a lawyer in name but with a caseload that high it’s effectively a warm body with a bar card,” said Jon Mosher, deputy director of the Sixth Amendment Center, a nonprofit that studies indigent defense across the country and wrote the report.

Public defenders play an important role in the criminal justice system by representing clients who are unable to afford an attorney. In Cook County, that’s about four out of every five defendants and the vast majority of those clients are Black and Latinx.

The problems facing public defenders stem in part from a lack of statewide oversight, Mosher said. Illinois is one of just seven states in the country without a state commission, agency, or officer that sets standards for indigent representation, according to the report. That means the state government has no way of determining if each county has enough lawyers, enough time to handle cases, or enough resources, Mosher said

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Sharone Mitchell Jr., who took over the public defender’s office in April, hopes to add more attorneys and work with community groups fighting for racial justice and systemic change.

The Sixth Amendment Center recommended that the state legislature create and appropriately fund a commission to set and enforce standards for effective public defense.

Spokespeople for Illinois Senate President Don Harmon and House Speaker Chris Welch, said their offices look forward to reviewing the report and seeing what steps can be taken to improve public defense.

During the legislative session that ended last week, both houses passed a bill to create a public defender task force that will examine the caseloads and quality of public defender services across the state. If Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the bill, the task force will prepare a report summarizing its findings and make recommendations for the governor and General Assembly by the end of next year.

Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke said in a statement that the court “recognize the challenges” found in the study and offered its “support to the legislative branch as they consider next steps towards establishing effective statewide indigent counsel in Illinois.”

‘We need bodies here’

In all of Illinois’ 102 counties aside from Cook County, public defenders are appointed by circuit court judges. That framework “institutionalizes political and judicial interference” in public defense and creates “systemic conflicts of interest,” the report said. Public defenders may feel like they can’t speak up for their clients or ask for more resources without risking their jobs, the report said.

Public defenders are “beholden to the circuit court judges,” Mosher said.

In every county, the study found public defenders grappling with excessive caseloads, leading to fears of burnout and depression.

In Cook County, assistant public defenders described being “overwhelmed,” suffering from “crushing depression,” and being alone “on an island” without adequate support, the study said.

“We need bodies here. We don’t have time to go to the washroom and drink water. We need people,” one assistant Cook County public defender told the study’s authors.

Sharone Mitchell Jr., who took over as Cook County public defender earlier this year, agreed that his office and public defenders across the state are in need of more resources and staff.

While working as a public defender is “incredibly rewarding” it’s also “incredibly taxing,” he said in an emailed statement. In his few months in office, he said he has been focusing on improving employee wellness.

A statewide commission could recommend that the legislature set aside state funding for public defender’s offices, or cap the amount that counties have to pay for indigent defense, with  additional funds for improvements subsidized by the state, the report said.

But any change in the way public defenders are appointed or funded would have to be approved by the General Assembly.

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