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When Cook County inmates await trial for years, true justice is thwarted

Judges have the power to insist on moving cases faster, but in general they go along when prosecutors and defense lawyers agree on continuances. They should go along less.

Cook County Jail
Sun-Times file photo

A trial is supposed to be about truth-finding and the seeking of justice. That purpose gets subverted when criminal suspects spend years in Cook County Jail awaiting trial.

As reporter Frank Main disclosed in Sunday’s Chicago Sun-Times, nearly 500 people have been detained continuously in the jail for at least three years; more than 130 people have been jailed at least five years; and six have been there for nine years. About four times as many detainees have been in jail awaiting trial for at least five years as there were in 2003. Most of the detainees are charged with murder.

This clearly doesn’t comport with a 2002 memo from then-State’s Attorney Richard Devine that complex murder cases should take no longer than 2½ years to come to trial and most should reach a disposition within a year and a half. It feels like what we are seeing when it comes to moving things along is a collective criminal justice shrug.

Defendants, especially those who see their convictions as likely, have reasons to let criminal proceedings move along at a snail’s pace, allowing them to stay in Cook County Jail instead of at a state prison, where they would go once they are convicted.

For many of them, the jail is closer to home, making it easier for family to visit.

Also, many of them prefer to avoid going to the Northern Reception and Classification Center, which is the first stop after a conviction. Many people say staying at the center is the hardest part of their incarceration. Inmates don’t have the same access to visitors, phone calls and a commissary as they do once they are assigned to a prison.

The number of Cook County Jail detainees held for at least four years has been rising since 2003.
Frank Main / Sun-Times

The center is supposed to be a temporary place where an inmate spends only about two weeks. But it is backlogged and overcrowded, partly because of the pandemic, and inmates might stay there for months. We’re told some people have been held there since at least January.

Another motivation for defendants is that cases can weaken over time. Witnesses can die or lose interest. If a trial is delayed long enough, the prosecution could collapse.

As for prosecutors with other cases to handle, they might feel no sense of urgency as long as defendants are locked up. Whether that is in jail awaiting trial or prison after a conviction isn’t a priority.

Judges have the power to insist on moving cases along, but in general they go along when prosecutors and defense lawyers agree on continuances. We’d like to see judges get more serious about bringing cases to a disposition in a timely manner.

It is within their powers to do so.

No one wants a rush to justice. Every case deserves careful consideration. But the players in the criminal justice system need to do a better job of speeding things up.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.