Alvarez complains caseload ‘staggering’ and funding shrinking

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Her office is struggling to keep up with the court system’s enormous crime and violence caseloads under countywide budget cuts, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez complained to the City Club of Chicago on Tuesday.

However, the county’s top prosecutor in her keynote also said she is buoyed by the success of new crime-fighting tools such as the state’s anti-racketeering and weapons laws targeting gangs, and is seeking to better battle sexual and domestic abuse crimes.

“The sheer volume of cases that we manage is staggering,” Alvarez said in her speech at the downtown Maggiano’s, noting her prosecutors disposed of some 211,000 felony and misdemeanor cases last year, a nearly 4 percent increase over 2012.

At the same time, she’s lost 130 staff in the past five years, she said.

“In my office, the somewhat alarming reality is that we manage our burgeoning caseloads in spite of continuing cuts to our staffing and resources. Our ranks remain significantly understaffed,” she said. “There is no question that these cuts have had a negative impact on our quality of service in some areas, as well as our ability to move cases through the system as quickly as we would like.” 

Each of her misdemeanor prosecutors currently manages a caseload of nearly 1,600 pending cases, while each felony prosecutor is managing 200 pending cases, while at the same time some 200 cases are being brought to trial weekly, Alvarez said, describing such numbers as among the highest in the nation. And most of her resources continue to be focused on Chicago’s gangs and gun violence, Alvarez said.

“Gun violence and other associated violent crimes continue to … pose an enormous challenge, particularly when it comes to the violence that we see every day on the streets of Chicago,” she said.

However, Alvarez said the state’s new RICO law allowing racketeering charges against gang leaders engaged in patterns of crime involving violence has been a boon, as has the 2009 Valadez Law mandating prison sentences for gang members arrested with weapons.

Some 472 defendants have been charged under the Valadez Law, with a nearly 90 percent conviction rate, and the vast majority plead guilty, Alvarez said.  

Last year, her office teamed with Chicago Police and the FBI to bring charges against some 40 leaders of the Black Souls street gang that operated a 24-hour, open-air drug market fueled by violence on the West Side. Alvarez said new RICO cases are pending.

Citing alarming statistics on domestic violence and sexual assault — including a study finding  one in four girls and  one in six boys will be sexually assaulted by age 18 — Alvarez announced her office is creating a new Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Division to handle sexual assault, domestic violence and sexual and Internet crimes against kids.

“Sexual and domestic violence cases are very complex and they involve unique dynamics. They are also highly sensitive and involve some of our most vulnerable victims,” Alvarez said. “Prosecutors who are specially trained and who routinely handle domestic violence and sexual violence cases can recognize common barriers to effectively handling these cases and develop strategies to overcome them.” 

Her announcement of the new division follows last month’s announcement with Mayor Rahm Emanuel that her office is joining Chicago’s top government agencies in creating a domestic violence task force targeting families considered at high risk for such abuse.

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