Appellate defender: Case backlog ‘a crisis in the criminal justice system’
James Chadd, Illinois state appellate defender, and Tonya Janecek, chief fiscal officer of that agency, testify before a Senate appropriations committee Thursday in Springfield to ask for a near 7 percent budget increase. Chadd said the department’s backlog of 2,672 cases represents “a crisis in the criminal justice system.” (Credit: blueroomstream.com)
Asks for 7 percent budget increase to hire 10 new attorneys
By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD — The director of the state agency that represents people in need in appeals of criminal charges said Thursday its backlog of 2,672 cases represents “a crisis in the criminal justice system” as he requested a near 7 percent increase to the agency’s budget.
James Chadd, who was appointed state appellate defender in December 2017, said his office has actually decreased the backlog from 3,759 to the current number since January 2018. That’s a decrease of about 29 percent.
“The reason for that is one thing and one thing primarily — and that is we’ve been fully funded for both years that I’ve been state appellate defender,” he said. “That has made all the difference. That is why our backlog has gone down, and as long as we stay fully funded and fully staffed, I anticipate that our backlog will continue to go down at that rate.”
He said his agency completed about 2,700 cases in 2019, but he requested spending authority to hire 10 new lawyers to accelerate that pace.
Those hires would remain on staff for four years, at which time he said the agency could have a better grasp on the backlog. Chadd said after that time, it would take about a year to pare the department back down “through attrition.”
His budget request was just shy of $25 million, an increase of about $1.6 million, or 6.8 percent, from a year ago.
“Even though we are making significant progress, I believe the situation we’re facing is a crisis in the criminal justice system. I believe that, the Supreme Court believes that, and the appellate court believes that,” he said, calling his request a “tremendous ask.”
Chadd said the added funding is important because his office represents those who cannot afford private attorneys but are appealing severe cases such as felonies, Class A misdemeanors, misdemeanors with imprisonment and more.
“We do the vast majority of criminal appeals in the state of Illinois,” he said.
The added funding would also allow for an increase in the pay plan for attorneys to $61,000 from $59,000 annually. It would also provide for three additional support staff.
Chadd said about 40 percent of the cases in the backlog are in Cook County, which makes up the state’s first of five appellate court districts. Four of the proposed new attorneys would serve that area, he said.
The state’s second district would see one or two new attorneys, the fourth three or four, and the third and fifth would each see one.
Chadd also said his office has a part-time expungement officer, but a budget increase would allow the department to make the position full-time.
“The law on expungement has been changing rapidly; we need an attorney to keep up with that,” he said.
He said about only 10 percent of juveniles eligible for expungement take advantage of it, but a full-time attorney could help increase that number.
Chadd also requested lawmakers to approve the budget of the state appellate prosecutors.
“They’re our opponents in court, but they’re an essential part of the appeals process,” he said. “And if we get the resources to move cases along and they don’t, it’s just going to push the problem down the road.”
Chadd also noted the Illinois Supreme Court is piloting a pro bono program in which unpaid attorneys substitute for the state appellate defender in an effort to reduce the backlog. As part of that program, 30 cases are earmarked for the first district and five are earmarked for the second. Six cases total have already been assigned.
State Sen. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago, asked for a further breakdown of how new resources would be employed and echoed Chadd’s concern about the backlog.
“There is a crisis in the criminal justice system when we don’t have adequate resources deployed on both sides of a transaction or a case before a judge,” he said. “And if we don’t provide the adequate resources both to the defenders and the state’s attorneys, we are putting poor defendants, indigent defendants, at a significant disadvantage.”