More than 2,600 people have been in custody at the Cook County Jail or at home on electronic monitoring for more than a year as a massive backlog of felony cases has piled up at the Cook County Circuit Court.
The backlog is a direct result of restrictions that Chief Judge Timothy Evans put in place last year to limit the spread of Covid-19. Evans postponed all jury trials and scaled back most court operations. Even when court cases picked up again on Zoom, technical difficulties and some defendants’ lack of access to computers or internet delayed cases further, and some proceedings could only be done in person.
As a result, there were more than 33,600 open felony cases in Cook County at the end of March, a 22% increase from the same time last year, according to an Injustice Watch analysis of Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office data.
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The repercussions of the backlog are most apparent at the Cook County Jail, where the number of people detained has risen steadily since last May. More than 2,000 people have been in jail for longer than a year, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, a 30% increase from the same time last year.
Defense attorneys, prosecutors, and policy advocates who spoke to Injustice Watch said the backlog has exacerbated court delays that existed before the pandemic. They urged the courts to move quickly to address the backlog, which some described as an ongoing crisis that gets worse each day as more cases are added to the back of the queue.
The backlog disproportionately affects Black people, who are overrepresented in the criminal court system. About 75% of the people in custody in Cook County are Black, compared to just 23% of the county population. Research shows that being locked up for even a short period pretrial can increase the risk of being rearrested, increase the likelihood of a conviction, and result in harsher sentences for those who are convicted.
A spokesperson for Evans said the resumption of in-person jury trials and bench trials last month will help the court begin to clear cases at a normal rate “by the end of the year.”
But Sarah Staudt, a senior policy analyst and staff attorney at the nonprofit court watchdog Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, said that wouldn’t be fast enough to clear the backlog or to meet an influx of cases that she expects as summer approaches and the city and state continue to lift pandemic restrictions.
“We have to move faster than normal,” Staudt said. If the criminal justice system is like a pipeline, “basically, it’s like the pipe is frozen” at the courts, she said.
Pandemic-related case backlogs aren’t unique to Cook County. Every state plus Washington, D.C., scaled back in-person court proceedings to some degree because of the pandemic, which inevitably slowed down the rate at which cases could be resolved.
But even before the pandemic, the Cook County Circuit Court did not meet national standards for resolving felony cases on time. According to the nonprofit National Center for State Courts, a nonpartisan research organization focused on court efficiency, 90% of felony cases should be resolved within six months. But a recent analysis by Staudt shows that between 2015 and 2020, fewer than half of felony cases in Cook County were resolved in that time. Mary Wisniewski, a spokesperson for the Cook County Circuit Court, said “busy urban courts like Chicago pose different issues than courts in other areas” and should be subject to different best practices.
‘Everybody is waiting’
There were 5,778 people detained at the Cook County Jail as of Tuesday, a 43% increase from the jail’s lowest daily population last May, after hundreds of detainees were released to prevent Covid-19 from further spreading at the jail. Forty percent of people at the jail pretrial have been there for more than a year, and another 700 are awaiting transfers to state prison, according to the sheriff’s office.
Part of the problem stems from the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision at the beginning of the pandemic to suspend the right to a speedy trial. That has left people accused of the most serious crimes, such as murder — who are most likely to demand a trial and least likely to be released on bond — stuck at the jail, said David Olson, co-director of the Center for Criminal Research, Policy, and Practice at Loyola University Chicago.
“A large share of the people in jail that are charged with murder are going to want a trial,” Olson said. “And for almost a year, we had no trials. So those cases are just sitting there, waiting for trials to start.”
The number of people on electronic monitoring has also ballooned from about 2,400, when the courts shut down last March, to more than 3,600 as of Tuesday. More than 600 people have been on electronic monitoring for more than a year, which is more than double the number there were a year ago, according to the sheriff’s office.
A spokesperson for the state supreme court would not say when the justices plan to reinstate the speedy trial demand. But when they do, any defendant in custody who demands one has to receive a trial within 120 days under state law. And the clock for defendants who had already requested a speedy trial could begin to tick again, a spokesperson for the state supreme court said.
In an interview, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said trying to address the case backlog will further strain her office, which is already stretched thin. Nearly one in 10 prosecutors either retired or resigned over the last year, according to a spokesperson for Foxx’s office.
In the past year, her office has closed fewer than six felony cases for every 10 cases that it opened, down from more than nine out of every 10 the year before, according to an Injustice Watch analysis. Half of all pending cases as of March 31 had been open for 392 days or more, up from 284 days a year before.
“The anxiety that our staff has about addressing the backlog is very real,” Foxx said. “I have to remind people that these are human endeavors, and our priority is on keeping communities safe.”
She said her office would prioritize violent crimes and crimes with victims.
The problem is that about 80% of people who are detained in the jail pretrial are accused of a violent crime, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.
There’s a good chance that some of them will end up winning their cases. The analysis by Staudt found that about one-third of people charged with murder or attempted murder between 2015 and 2020 were acquitted or had all charges against them dismissed.
But sitting in jail or on home confinement for extended periods can lead people to consider pleading guilty to “either crimes they didn’t commit or crimes that are being overcharged,” said Cathryn Crawford, director of holistic legal services at the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, a nonprofit that represents juveniles and young adults in felony cases.
Wisniewski, the spokesperson for the court, said the return of bench and jury trials would begin to show results soon. She also said prosecutors and defense attorneys should review their cases and agree to allow some defendants in custody to be let out on bond.
Staudt agrees that the court should make it easier to release more people on bond, but officials should also pick up the pace through other means, she said. For example, Evans, the chief judge, could empower a “centralized group of stakeholders” — including public defenders, prosecutors, and judges — to sift through the pile and find defendants who’ve been in custody for so long, either at the jail or on electronic monitoring, that even if they’re convicted, they will end up doing little to no jail time, she said. Prosecutors should also start choosing which cases they’re going to dismiss sooner rather than later, she said.
Until then, “everybody is waiting,” Staudt said.
Injustice Watch intern Michael Korsh contributed reporting.