When defendants stew in prison for years awaiting appeals, justice is denied

It is mockery of justice when defendants are forced to serve their full prison sentences before their appeals are finally settled.

SHARE When defendants stew in prison for years awaiting appeals, justice is denied
The Cook County state’s attorney’s office explains to the state appeals court last year that a manpower shortage prompted its request for a 180-day extension to file arguments in an appeal by defendant Jasper McLaurin.

The Cook County state’s attorney’s office explains to the state appeals court last year that a manpower shortage prompted its request for a 180-day extension to file arguments in an appeal by defendant Jasper McLaurin.

Illinois Appellate Court

It is mockery of justice when criminal defendants are forced to serve their full prison sentences before their appeals finally are settled, which happens in Cook County all the time.

It is a classic case of justice delayed being justice denied, and Illinois should be embarrassed.

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As Frank Main and Andy Grimm reported in Sunday’s Chicago Sun-Times, two-thirds of the 1,300 cases the state appeals court for Cook County disposed of in 2018 took at least 782 days to complete.

That’s about double the time the American Bar Association says a typical criminal conviction appeal should require.

Many of the appeals are filed by individuals who are, in fact, guilty of the crimes they are charged with. For them, long delays in the appeals process may not matter much.

But a third of those who appeal will prevail by winning an outright acquittal, a new trial or a sentence reduction. For those people, an appeals process that stretches on for years can be immensely unfair. They are forced to sit in prison for years, even if eventually they are found not guilty.

A successful appeal can come so late that they have served their full sentence. And if they are pursuing post-conviction relief — a forum in which they seek to call witnesses who weren’t called at their original trial — those witnesses may have died or moved away or their memories may have faded.

In Cook County, about two-thirds of appeals take longer than two years to complete. One in 10 appeals take longer than three years. Cases have been known to take four or five years until they are resolved.

Under Illinois’ current appeals system, preparing a record for an appeal can take months. Both the Office of the State Appellate Defender and the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor might ask for several delays, delaying an appeal for even more months. Then each side files briefs, followed by a reply brief, which tacks on more months.

All those delays must seem interminable to a defendant behind bars who knows that he or she is innocent. It’s why the National Center for State Courts has posted this quote on its website: “… in some ways, appellate delays are especially pernicious.”

Lawyers who work on appeals say the Office of the State Appellate Defender is a well–run office with good lawyers. The office, they say, simply requires more resources.

We’ve been through this before. In 1994, the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University Law School sued the state on behalf of hundreds of indigent inmates whose appeals were taking, on average, three years to be decided. In 1996, the late U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur ordered the state to trim Office of State Appellate Defender’s backlog.

State officials said they would boost the budget. But the delays have continued. James Chadd, who took over the state appellate defender’s office in 2018, said the backlog today is 2,742 cases statewide, down from 3,892 cases when he came into the job.

The delays aren’t limited to Illinois. Nationwide, the National Center for State Courts says the time it takes 75% of appeals to be resolved or reach a key milestone has increased from 2.5 years in 2010, to 3.2 years in 2016-17, partly because of a significant increase in the number of extensions granted by judges.

But some states are at least trying to buck the trend. Colorado, for example, has incentivized court reporters to turn in trial transcripts on time by paying less for late transcripts, which are needed for appeals. Colorado also has increased funding for appellate prosecutors and defenders and discourages lawyers from filing long briefs. Judges have prohibited attorneys from obtaining extensions of more than a year to file legal briefs.

Illinois did impose one small reform last year, weeding out appeals having to do with court costs and fees. Those disputes now remain at the trial level.

An appeals court is supposed to safeguard justice by correcting for errors made at the trial court level.

But when judges and lawyers drag out an appeal so long that a defendant — guilty or innocent — winds up serving his full sentence all the same, there is only injustice.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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