Illinois justice system in better shape today

Illinois justice system in better shape today

When I was a boy, unschooled local justices of the peace were infamous for working with small-town cops to set up speed traps to fleece unsuspecting motorists. Not a very reassuring introduction to our state's justice system. Things have improved much since then, yet vigilance and some changes are still warranted.

In 1969, two Illinois Supreme Court justices were forced to resign for accepting stock in a new bank at bargain-basement prices from a fellow who at the same time was receiving a favorable court ruling from these same justices.

Much worse, in the late 1980s and early '90s, 15 state judges and more than 100 court personnel in Cook County were convicted by federal prosecutors for facilitating and accepting bribes, even bribes to dismiss murder cases.

Justice was for sale back then, at least in some courtrooms.

Recently I sat down with the circuit judge who sits in my county, among others. Judge Scott Shore has a wealth of varied experience from 23 years on the bench, including death penalty cases. Shore is an editor of one of several specialized books for Illinois judges that provide guidance on the bench for issues that come before the judges.

Shore reports that today the justice system in Illinois is in good shape. He credits much to extensive education programs for judges.

Active on the state judiciary's education committee, Judge Shore notes that judges are required to complete continuing judicial education programs and regularly attend judicial education conferences and seminars.

New judges are provided mentors, and all judges go through performance evaluations by their peers.

For the most part, justice is not delayed in downstate Illinois, though the massive Cook County court system is still working on this issue.

Many jurisdictions have created specialized courts for drug, mental health, veterans and DUI cases. Judges meet with social service providers, counsel and defendants to try to shape solutions outside incarceration.

"We have to look outside the jailhouse for remedies," says Shore. He makes a plea for allowing a judge to use expert discretion in seeking alternatives to long sentences.

"From the bench, I see many people who should have been spared the court process, but who haven't received medical, psychological, legal and other support they needed."

In the real world, few cases go to trial anymore. Most are mediated or negotiated by parties or their counsel, either outside privately or inside the judicial process, as in plea bargaining.

Shore feels the plea-bargaining process generally nets a fair and equitable result.

"Ninety-five percent of cases are resolved by agreement," says the judge, "equally satisfactory or equally unsatisfactory to both sides."

"If not for civil settlements and plea bargaining," says Shore, "we would need 20 times the number of courts and jurors. We would overwhelm the system without the bargaining process."

There is potential, I think, for abuse of this process, which is conducted privately. I worry about cases where a prosecutor "punishes" a defendant by filing harsh charges if the defendant does not plead guilty.

Shore disputes this, pointing out a judge has the discretion to accept or reject a plea.

Judicial selection is another key process in the system, one that I think could use some fixing. In one recent state Supreme Court contest in southern Illinois, $10 million was spent by interest groups on behalf of the candidates. Justice should not be for sale, or for purchase.

In Illinois we elect circuit, appellate and supreme court judges. (Associate circuit judges, who have the same authority as circuit judges and represent about half of all judges, are appointed through election by the circuit judges in the respective districts.)

Let's be honest, most of us don't know what we are doing when we vote for judges. No system for selecting judges is perfect. However, appointment of all federal judges by the president, with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate, seems to work well.

I think we would have a stronger system, not a perfect one, if all state judges were appointed, as in Missouri and a number of states, rather than subject to the electoral process.

The sense I received from Scott Shore is that the third branch of government is today functioning much better than I recall from the past.

Nevertheless, constant vigilance of this little-understood branch is needed from journalists, federal investigators, court watchers and the judges themselves to ensure that justice is blind — and fair and balanced.

Jim Nowlan is a retired senior fellow with the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs and a former president of the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois. A former Illinois legislator and aide to three unindicted governors, he is the lead author of "Illinois Politics: A Citizen's Guide" (University of Illinois Press, 2010). He can be contacted at jnowlan3@gmail.com.

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Sid Saltfork wrote on December 01, 2013 at 9:12 am

The constitutionality of "pension reform" will be the answer whether the justice system in Illinois is still corrupt, or not.  The State of Illinois Supreme Court still has to decide on the retirees forced increased financial participation in earned health care insurance.   The court still has to decide if the Chicago Park District retirees pensions can be "diminished", or "impaired".  Both of these decisions should have been made before the legislators enact "pension reform" on the state, university, and teaching retirees.  The decisions would have given the legislators a clue about the State of Illinois Constitution.  Yeah, the constitution that the legislators swore an oath to honor.

Skepticity wrote on December 01, 2013 at 11:12 am

Not to diminish the pending pension decisions in the assessment of the justice system, but there is another point with which I take issue:

Plea bargain justice may move offenders through the system and give the appearance of having provided a consequence for the crime, but in the majority of cases it minimizes consequences and leads to a much quicker release of criminals onto the streets to have the opportunity to reoffend. 

I don't question that in many cases a second chance is appropriate, and that probation and boot camp sentences can be useful.  These are appropriate sentences for many crimes, particularly early in the career of the criminal, when their lives still may change directions.  They cease being appropriate when the offender commits multiple additional offenses before the first is resolved.  It is common for there to be a number of offenses before the first trial is concluded, and charges are often lumped together for plea bargaining to get a plea for just one charge, the others being dismissed or reduced. 

I object to the number of times that serious violent offenses, weapons offenses, and offenses involving breaking into residences are allowed to be pled to lesser offenses with lesser consequences.  These offenders often are given the opportunity for multiple second chances, because their initial more serious offenses are pled away and dismissed so that the State can get a conviction without the trouble of a trial for the serious offenses. 

The offenders get a lighter sentence and the original, more serious, charges that were dismissed cannot be taken into account in new sentencing, since there was no conviction.  Reducing and/or dismissing serious charges can also affect the prisoner qualifying for early release programs.  There was no conviction for the serious offense that was dismissed in the plea, so the limitations on early release of prisoners who committed those offenses do not apply. 

This information is easily available to anyone who follows criminal justice in the papers, reviews police media reports, and looks online at the Circuit Clerk's website. 

The plea bargain process allows the courts to process more crimes to resolution, it allows the prosecutors to have a better conviction record, it allows the offenders to receive lesser sentences and to have more serious offenses dismissed or reduced, and it leaves the public at risk from the same criminals, who are quickly back on the street. 

Most criminals are not caught for every crime they commit.  One in five crimes being prosecuted to conviction would be optimistic, perhaps one in ten is more realistic.

The public remains at risk from the same offenders who are released to plague our community.  If you are the victim of serious crime for which the offender received a light sentence or pled away the crime, this is not justice, this is a travesty. 

The victims remain victimized, sometimes suffering from serious trauma that far outlasts any regret the criminal may experience, and the wheels of "justice" roll on.

Local Yocal wrote on December 01, 2013 at 6:12 pm
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The circuit clerk should be made to publish an annual report on the judiciary where each circuit judge's decisions are given an annual summary for voter/public inspection. The amount of bonds and what type of crimes should be recorded. The defendant's race, age, gender, the crime charged against each defendant, and the sentence handed down on each defendant should be recorded for each corresponding judge. The number of trials a judge presided over and the number of objections they sustained or overruled for which side should be recorded.
Assistant state prosecutors and assistant public defenders should have a similar annual record produced as well.