A Cook County court program to keep struggling probationers out of prison was shut down this month, its state funding curtailed amid concerns about the program and the judge who presided over it.

HOPE court was launched in 2011 with $1 million from the state of Illinois. It aimed to provide intensive probation for convicted defendants considered likely to otherwise end up in state prison.

Most who entered succeeded. But the program was marred by complaints it wasn’t reaching the right population and that Cook County Circuit Judge Jackie Portman-Brown would bully lawyers, courtroom staffers and probation officers involved in HOPE court and sometimes act vindictively against defendants.

The problems are detailed in internal reports, emails and notes obtained by City Bureau and Injustice Watch from Adult Redploy Illinois, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority program that funded HOPE court. State officials twice ordered Cook County court officials to fix the problems.

Court officials took steps to address the concerns. But Chief Cook County Judge Timothy C. Evans kept Portman-Brown in charge even after members of his staff were present at a meeting where HOPE court supervisors urged that she be removed.

In 2014, Adult Redeploy arranged for a review by Loyola University Chicago criminology experts, who found that court officials didn’t have a system to adequately identify offenders who could benefit from the intensive-probation court and to ensure they were diverted into the program.

Two years later, another outside review, this one by the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, found that members of the court staff, including attorneys, probation officers and their supervisors, saw Portman-Brown as spiteful and a bully.

Adult Redeploy then did an anonymous survey of the team members. More than one-third of those surveyed didn’t respond, some citing fear of retaliation by the judge, records show.

Last spring, Adult Redeploy decided to cut off the money, effective this month.

State officials declined interview requests. In an email, spokeswoman Cristin Evans says they concluded that HOPE “did not serve its population of probationers as intended.”

Portman-Brown, who is now assigned as a “floating” judge, available to substitute for other judges as needed, declined to be interviewed. But in a written statement in response to reporters’ questions, she insists the program was a success and that the documented complaints against her were false.

The chief judge declined to be interviewed.

Tim Evans

Chief Cook County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Evans. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

The Cook County HOPE court was modeled on the Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement court, taking its name from that.

Probationers who break the rules face punishment such as community service hours and jail stays. But they also are given second chances and provided with therapy, drug treatment and other services.

Retired Judge Steve Alm, who created the Hawaii program, set specific sanctions, so probationers would know what to expect. For instance, show up late to Alm’s court, expect to spend the next few hours in a cell in the courthouse with no reading materials or a cell phone. Fail a drug test but take responsibility, spend two days in jail. Fail a drug test, with lab confirmation, but deny using drugs, spend 15 days in lockup. Skip out on drug testing altogether, get a warrant issued for your arrest — and 30 days in custody.

“You’ve got to be consistent,” Alm says. “That’s the key to this.”

“You’ve got to be consistent,” says retired Judge Steve Alm, who created the Hawaii program. “That’s the key to this.”

“You’ve got to be consistent,” Alm says. “That’s the key to this.”

But there were persistent questions about seemingly arbitrary and inconsistent treatment of defendants on Portman-Brown’s watch.

Ali Abid — who was then senior criminal justice policy analyst for Chicago Appleseed, conducted the second outside evaluation — said in his reports that the court team created a chart to try to make sentences predictable. But, except for the judge, every person he interviewed told him it never was used.

According to Abid’s notes, John Greenlees, an assistant public defender, said that when Portman-Brown was pressed to follow the guidelines for punishment and rewards, the judge responded by saying she “never agreed to them.”

Two Cook County state’s attorney’s office supervisors — Emily Cole and Mark Kammerer — said they appealed to Portman-Brown in August 2016, asking her to follow best practices, according to Abid’s notes, to no avail.

Asked about the problems, Portman-Brown responded by email, saying his report mischaracterized the HOPE team’s comments.

Chanell Polk, 27, is among the probationers seen in HOPE court. Writing in August from Logan Correctional Center, Polk said she thought she had signed on to get help to stay off drugs. By phone, she told reporters she also asked in HOPE court for anger-management treatment, as well as other help, but didn’t get any.

Instead, Polk ended up spending nearly six months in the Cook County Jail after testing positive for marijuana and leaving home while on court-ordered home confinement.

Chanell Polk and her son Khariyo. | Family photo

Like Polk, many HOPE court participants commit probation violations, such as testing positive for drugs, not coming to court and getting arrested on new charges. Some racked up numerous violations — in one case, records show, 17 of them — without being sent to prison.

In the five years since her arrest, Polk faced no new charges. She was on a years-long hiatus from the court when she and her family moved to Minnesota. She violated her probation four times.

In July, though, Polk, a mother of three, was dropped from the HOPE court and sent downstate to serve the rest of her three year sentence at the Logan Correctional Center — for a crime, felony possession of heroin with the intent to sell, she committed when she was 21.

Polk wrote in the August letter that Portman dispensed justice unevenly: “She had her pick of the people in that program she wanted to help. I just wasn’t one of them.”

After the Loyola review in 2014, Adult Redeploy conducted its own anonymous survey and found a smattering of complaints about the judge. One staffer portrayed Portman-Brown as a bully and described being made by the judge to feel “worthless.” Another pointed to Portman-Brown as the reason for high turnover on the team.

Comments compiled from reports produced for Adult Redeploy Illinois about the HOPE court

Comments compiled from reports produced for Adult Redeploy Illinois about the HOPE court. | Abigail Blachman / Injustice Watch

In the Adult Redeploy reports in 2016, Abid cited “abusive” emails, calls and meetings HOPE court team members said they endured from Portman-Brown.

He wrote that Cole, from the state’s attorney’s office, and Carolyn Lisle, an adult probation supervisor, told him they experienced “bullying behavior by the judge.”

Another probation supervisor, Don Weimar, said all of his probation officers reported such behavior, according to Abid.

HOPE court staff members also said the judge had imposed increased sanctions on defendants not because of anything they’d done but “due to arguments with team members and to spite them,” Abid wrote.

His reports included a recommendation from the public defender’s office, state’s attorney and probation department to replace Portman-Brown with another judge.

Asked for an interview, Portman-Brown’s emailed response says Abid’s reports, commissioned by state Adult Redeploy officials, were “unauthorized,” and that she could not respond to specifics in the reports because she hadn’t been provided with that information. Then, after being sent copies of the reports, the judge didn’t respond further.

In an undated and lengthy email to Abid obtained through a public records request, Portman-Brown did appear to have read at least some of what he had produced. In it, the judge dismissed Abid’s findings from interviews with the HOPE court team as a “one-sided version” and took issue with 10 conclusions he spelled out.

“The court appreciates any constructive criticism,” Portman-Brown wrote to Abid. “However, that information should be grounded in fact and some investigative steps to ensure that you are reporting accurately. More importantly what is reported should reflect the entire story and not appear to be jaded or one sided with you only reporting what it is that you feel is important or focusing on.”

In her email to reporters, Portman-Brown wrote that team members were gathered for a meeting, which she was not present for, where they explained that Abid’s findings “were not true and accurate and were a mischaracterization of what they said.” She also wrote that the HOPE team was asked if they wanted a different judge assigned to that courtroom and that they all replied no.

At a public meeting in 2017, Adult Redeploy officials discussed how some team members didn’t even fill out the anonymous survey because they feared retaliation from the judge.

One who did respond wrote: “Trust is completely gone.”

Sarah Conway reports for City Bureau, a nonprofit civic journalism lab based on the South Side. Emily Hoerner reports for Injustice Watch, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit journalism organization that conducts in-depth research to expose institutional failures that obstruct justice and equality.