The Illinois Supreme Court has identified a problem, but a solution is not yet in hand.
No one ever wants to be caught up in the criminal-justice system. But defendants who face that kind of problem certainly want — and need — swift resolutions of their cases.
That means a prompt trial and, if convicted, a timely appeal. Those aren’t top priorities in all cases, but they certainly are in many.
That’s why a recent announcement by the Illinois Supreme Court is good news for those who have been convicted, sentenced and are appealing their cases.
The high court announced this week that, beginning in December, it’s expanding a voluntary program in Cook County and northern Illinois to all of the state’s 102 counties.
The program is trying to help speed up the appellate process by recruiting volunteer lawyers to help reduce severe backlogs in pending appeals.
So far, 75 lawyers have stepped forward to handle appeals. Everyone should hope that more step up when the program is in place statewide.
Here’s the problem the court seeks to ameliorate.
Sometimes, it takes so long for an appeal to be resolved that inmates have already served their sentences by the time the legal process is over.
That doesn’t make much difference for those whose convictions have been affirmed. But what of those defendants whose convictions were overturned, but not before they served their sentences and were released?
That’s an injustice by anyone’s standard, one that needs to be addressed.
This problem is particularly acute in northern Illinois, where the backlog is most severe. But it happens in central Illinois as well.
In early 2019, the Fourth District Appellate Court reduced the excessive sentence of Richard Cisco from nine to six years. But in that case, it took two years for Cisco’s appellate lawyers just to file their first brief.
“There is simply no justification for the (appellate defender) to have let defendant’s appeal, which held obvious merit, lay dormant for almost two years,” Justice Thomas Harris wrote for the court.
In another case involving a McLean County man, the defendant served his full four-year sentence before his conviction was overturned.
“That should never have happened,” wrote Justice Robert Steigmann.
Backlogs are understandable and almost certainly unavoidable. So the high court’s search for volunteers to help carry the load is welcome.
But in the case Harris referenced, he wrote that Cisco’s case reflected “obvious merit.”
That means Cisco appeals presented a substantive issue for the court to resolve, something that is missing in many cases in which convicted defendants appeal.
That raises another possibility, that of appellate lawyers reviewing pending cases and separating the more meritorious from the less meritorious.
Experienced lawyers can tell the difference, and they should try to do so in an effort to get the more substantive cases in the pipeline at a quicker rate.
The high court is addressing a serious issue here, and it ought not just rely on more lawyers, but on more lawyers exercising their best professional judgment, in trying to solve the problem.