Illinois Supreme Court takes step to cut long backlog of criminal appeals in Cook County

After a Sun-Times report that delays mean some already are out of prison before winning their appeals, the high court has announced a pilot program to try to fix that.

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Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke says a pilot program launched by the court is similar to efforts in other states to cut into backlogs of criminal appeals.

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke says a pilot program launched by the court is similar to efforts in other states to cut into backlogs of criminal appeals.

Sun-Times file

Fourteen volunteer lawyers have been approved to help speed inmates’ appeals under a new Illinois Supreme Court program to try to speed the glacial pace of appeals in criminal cases.

It takes so long to decide appeals in Cook County criminal cases that some people finish their sentences, only to win an acquittal after they’re already out of prison, the Chicago Sun-Times reported in January.

Now, the state’s high court has launched a six-month program in Cook County and northern Illinois to try to fix that. If it works, the plan is to expand it statewide.

“Similar programs have been used in other states to help reduce backlogs,” Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke said.

Bertina Lampkin, an appeals judge in Cook County, said she has spoken with law firms that have embraced the program with “enthusiasm and support.”

Locke Bowman, executive director of the MacArthur Justice Center, said, “It’s good news to hear that the Supreme Court recognizes the problem and appreciates the need for action.”

“This is a problem that will eventually have to be addressed institutionally, in my opinion,” Bowman said. “Pro bono volunteers won’t, in the end, be sufficient to solve a backlog created by insufficient publicly funded appellate defense attorneys, I fear.” 

Some who are convicted of crimes in Cook County wait years for the courts to decide their appeals. The state appeals court panel for Cook County decided more than 1,300 criminal cases in 2018. Two-thirds of those took at least 782 days to resolve — a longer wait than anywhere else in Illinois. And one of every 10 appeals takes longer than three years to decide.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

Sun-Times file

The Cook County state’s attorney’s office routinely seeks 180-day extensions to respond to appeals because of a shortage of attorneys to handle those cases, the Sun-Times found.

On Thursday, a representative of State’s Attorney Kim Foxx appeared before the Illinois Senate appropriations committee to ask for $1 million to hire 10 entry-level prosecutors to handle appeals, according to a spokeswoman for Foxx.

James Chadd, the state appellate defender, whose office handles the bulk of criminal appeals in Cook County, said his office has asked for funding to add 10 staff attorneys and to be able to hire outside lawyers as well.

“Every other little bit will help,” Chadd said of the supreme court program, which has attracted lawyers from big Chicago firms including Hinshaw & Culbertson, Winston Strawn, McDermott Will & Emery and Seyfarth Shaw.

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