Updated June 30, 6 p.m.
The right to a speedy trial is on its way back in Illinois, but defendants will still have to wait another three months to invoke it.
In an order issued Wednesday, the Illinois Supreme Court announced that it is reinstating the state’s speedy trial law on Oct. 1 — a year and a half after the court suspended the statute at the onset of the pandemic.
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State law mandates prosecutors bring defendants to trial within 120 days after being brought into custody and within 160 days if they’re out on bond. The suspension also applied for defendants who had already invoked their right to a speedy trial and were on the clock.
In the order suspending the speedy trial law last April, the court cited the “extraordinary circumstances” brought on by the pandemic that forced courthouses to scale down operations dramatically. But defense attorneys and due process advocates criticized the court’s prolonged suspension of speedy trial rights given that Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker lifted all pandemic-related restrictions across the state earlier this month, Injustice Watch reported last week.
The court gave chief judges statewide the go-ahead on Wednesday to “relax or eliminate social distancing requirements” at their courthouses. Those guidelines have prevented the Cook County Circuit Court from conducting more trials as the courts ramp up operations.
Chicago attorney Anthony Hill, president of the Illinois Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he welcomes both orders as they signal a return to normal for the courts. But the orders seem to give mixed messages, he said.
“If you say there aren’t any Covid-19 protocols, but the speedy trial stay is in place until Oct. 1, it doesn’t seem to reconcile in our minds,” Hill said.
Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. said he was disappointed by the court’s decision to delay the reinstatement of speedy trial rights until the fall.
“These aren’t constitutional rights that are taken and given back as a matter of convenience,” he said. Wednesday’s order “doesn’t mean that everybody on Oct. 1 now gets a chance to go to trial. It just means that the clock starts again.”
Court experts said they expect the reinstatement of speedy trial rights to bring about a wave of speedy trial demands from defendants who’ve waited throughout the pandemic or longer for their cases to get resolved.
The state supreme court delayed the reactivation of the speedy trial law to give chief circuit judges statewide “at least 90 days to prepare,” according to a press release.
Those extra 90 days will be crucial for the Cook County Circuit Court, said Sarah Staudt, a senior policy analyst and staff attorney at the nonprofit court watchdog Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts.
A massive backlog of open felony cases has piled up at the court since the pandemic, and the number of people in jail and on electronic monitoring pretrial has ballooned. If all of those defendants sought to exercise their right to a speedy trial, it could bring the court to its knees.
“There are good public interest reasons not to want that chaos,” she said.
Staudt hopes that Wednesday’s order will prompt Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office to work towards clearing as many backlogged cases as fast as possible.
In a statement, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said her office has “been working their cases in preparation” for Wednesday’s order.
A spokesperson for Evans was unavailable to comment.