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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘A state of triage’: Illinois public defenders in crisis amid staffing shortage

Like in many states, public defenders in Illinois have long been short on resources. Two proposed bills this year aimed to fix the problem, but both ultimately failed.

CHICAGO (CN) — Elisabeth Pollock works as the chief public defender in Illinois’ Champaign County.

The fourteen public defenders under her handle up to 200 cases at a time.

“We’re constantly living in a state of triage,” Pollock said in a phone interview. “The quality of work is excellent” — but there simply aren’t enough workers. “Client frustration is really high, because [defendants] want to be able to access us freely and sometimes it’s simply not physically possible.” 

It’s not just Champaign County. Public defenders across the state face similar workloads. More than half are without a public defenders’ office altogether.

Research from the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law estimates there’s a shortfall of nearly 900 public defenders statewide. Meanwhile, a 2021 report from the Sixth Amendment Center found that the current public defense system in Illinois is inconsistent, lacks adequate resources and does not meet the state’s constitutional obligations.

Illinois isn’t the only state facing such a shortage. From Washington State to Texas, critics say an inadequate supply of defenders is undermining the rights of defendants to fair representation and speedy proceedings.

Without enough defenders, “people in various counties are not getting access to their constitutional right to an attorney in the same way,” said Briana Payton, director of policy and advocacy at the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts. 

In Illinois this year, concerns like these prompted at least two bills aimed at addressing the shortfall. 

One was withdrawn for lack of support, while the other failed to pass before the state legislative session in Springfield ended on Friday. For now at least, Illinois public defenders who say they need more resources will have to keep waiting.

The reform that made it the furthest this year came from state Representative Dave Vella, a Democrat from Loves Park and a former public defender himself. Known as the Funded Advocacy and Independent Representation (FAIR) Act, the bill would have created a statewide public-defender office as well as a new 11-member oversight commission.

The bill prompted optimism among Illinois public defenders and legal advocates — but after making it to the House Rules Committee on May 14, the FAIR Act did not see a vote on the House floor before the end of the legislative session on Friday. The proposal is now dead, at least for this session.

In a phone interview, Vella said he planned to introduce another such reform in the near future. He said he'll use the coming months to hone details of the bill. “We want to have subject-matter hearings in the fall and maybe bring it up in the veto session in October," he said.

Stephanie Kollmann, policy director of the Children Family Justice Center at Northwestern’s law school, was optimistic about the FAIR Act. In a previous interview, she noted the bill would require the public defenders’ office to be independent and subject to public-information requests. 

“It removes the judicial and political influence factor,” she said. “That is a huge step forward.”

After the bill died on Friday, Kollmann remained optimistic that state lawmakers could implement reforms this year — for example, in a lame-duck or veto session. Waiting until the next full legislative session in 2025 would only lead to more issues for public defenders and their clients, she said.

“Every delay means more people going through the courts with a defense that's inadequately resourced,” Kollman said. “It's really important for this to be passed as soon as possible. I don't think it would have to wait until another year. I think if it can't happen now, it should happen very soon.” 

Members of San Francisco's Public Defender's Office participate in a rally, including defender Elizabeth Camacho, center. (San Francisco Public Defender's Office / Courthouse News)

Officials in Illinois have grappled with the defender shortage for years.

The Illinois Supreme Court in 2022 recognized the failures of the public defense system, establishing the Criminal Indigent Task Force to make recommendations. In 2023, the Illinois SAFE-T (Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today) Act went into effect, ending cash bail and prompting further conversations about the need for changes in the public defense system. 

Under that law, criminal defendants are entitled to in-person hearings within 48 hours of their arrest. That’s a “challenge that can only be effectively met by getting resources to local jurisdictions as quickly as possible,” as the Criminal Indigent Task Force put it.

Kollmann said the SAFE-T act laid bare the need for changes to Illinois public defense system. 

Payton with the Appleseed Center agrees. The act brought “to the forefront certain rights that people accused of crimes were supposed to have in the legal system all along,” Payton said. “Without the proper support for public defense, those rights just become words on paper. We need the proper and adequate support for public defense, because that is what turns laws into reality.”

A lack of resources is just one of those issues facing Illinois public defenders. 

In every county across the state, public defense budgets are set and managed by local elected officials, judges or both. Cook County, home to Chicago, is the only Illinois county where the judiciary doesn’t appoint the public defender.

Having judges appoint public defenders creates a conflict of interest, Kollmann said. For example, they might be reluctant to speak out about their heavy workload or lack of resources if they know judges can dismiss them.

In 101 of Illinois’ 102 counties, supervising judges “are the ones who select, approve and can remove public defenders,” she added. That’s in spite of the fact that “every legal association has agreed that public defenders should not be supervised by judges.”

Celeste Korando is the chief public defender in Jackson County. She’s overseen by an elected circuit judge who doesn’t supervise any of her cases. 

Attorneys in many other counties aren’t so lucky — and like others, Korando says that’s a problem. “To be at the behest of one judge creates an issue,” she said.

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