County courts hoping help is on the way

County courts hoping help is on the way

URBANA – A week wouldn't be complete if Presiding Judge Tom Difanis didn't get a letter from a criminal defendant complaining about his public defender.

The theme is usually the same: the attorney hasn't spent enough time with the client.

Little wonder, given the numbers.

Champaign County Public Defender Randy Rosenbaum said in 2005, each of his five full-time felony attorneys opened 473 cases. In 2004, it was 450 each. In 2003, when private attorneys still were on contract with the county to help with the indigent caseload, it was 293 each.

Consider that the American Bar Association standard is no more than 150 felony cases per attorney per year for adequate representation.

Armed with those figures, Rosenbaum hopes the county board will look favorably on his request to fund a position in his office that previously was paid for mostly with a grant from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

The request was approved Thursday by the finance committee of the county board and will be forwarded to the full board for action March 28.

The funding for the position, a lawyer to represent clients in violent felonies, actually runs out at the end of July, but Rosenbaum is asking the grant provider to end it early and the board to pick up the funding.

"If I have to restructure the office a bit for June, I want to know now, as opposed to the end of July, if I'm going to lose a person," Rosenbaum said.

He's been shuffling already because of the departure of his former first assistant, John Taylor, who took a job in the federal court system at the end of January, and because of the addition of another attorney for his office to cope with the county's new continuous jury system.

The county board approved the concept, with little discussion or dissent, at its Feb. 23 meeting. The estimated price tag of $97,000 a year included about $47,000 for another public defender who will start June 1.

Right now, 13 attorneys are on staff, six of whom handle felonies. The new attorney who came with the continuous jury term will bring the number to 14.

If the county board doesn't approve paying for the grant-funded position – which Rosenbaum also would like to start June 1 – the number will be back to 13.

Court Administrator Roger Holland said Difanis wants to get the continuous jury term off the ground in early June.

Difanis believes, based on the experience in Will County, that having juries all month long – actually, 48 weeks a year – to hear cases will keep the number of felony cases and the numbers of jail inmates at a more reasonable level.

"I'm trying to be part of the solution that moves cases as quickly as possible. Whether or not the county board wants to build another jail, that's their call. I just want to make sure they don't build it because our numbers are exploding," Difanis said.

In February, 719 felony cases were on the pretrial list. Of that number, 164 were announced ready for trial. Of those 164, 32 were continued to a future date, meaning 132 cases were closed either by trial, guilty plea or dismissal.

Five of the 132 were tried before juries. Two ended in mistrials because the jurors couldn't agree on a verdict, meaning they will have to be tried again. Most of the others pleaded guilty. Some were dismissed as part of plea agreements.

In spite of the low number of jury trials and the availability of four judges to hear the cases, Difanis is convinced a continuous jury term is the answer.

"In Will County, they average three trials a week in seven courtrooms. That's what keeps your numbers down. If we have the ability to try the cases, the cases will get moved," he said.

To prepare for the transition to the continuous jury term, Rosenbaum and State's Attorney Julia Rietz are engaged in office reorganization. For the concept to work, both agree they'll have to assign lawyers to courtrooms so that when one case is finished, the attorneys just go on to the next.

"It will be a good thing administratively in that my office won't be in jury trial mode two weeks out of every month," Rietz said. "It makes it very difficult to get the day-to-day work done when everybody is possibly in a jury trial."

The way trial assignments work now, Difanis sets two or three cases for trial in a certain courtroom at the same time, assuming that at least one, and usually more, will not require a jury because the defendant might plead guilty at the last minute or a case might need to be continued because a witness can't be found.

Trying to be ready to prosecute or defend multiple cases at once is difficult on the lawyers, their support staff and the witnesses, Rietz said.

Under the new system, the lawyers will be assigned to certain judges and have a better idea which cases will go forward and in what order.

Difanis, Rietz and Holland all observed that this is not a pie-in-the-sky notion; it has worked in other counties, including DuPage and Will.

Rosenbaum and Rietz said a possible drawback is that lawyers and judges get too familiar with each other, but they also agreed that can be positive.

"If you have a good working relationship, you can move cases better," Rosenbaum said. "If you have to work with six different prosecutors, just getting hold of them is difficult."

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