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Illinois Supreme Court expands volunteer program to cut backlog of appeals in criminal cases

In January, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis found some people convicted of crimes in Cook County wait years for the courts to decide their appeals.

Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke.
Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke.
Rich Hein / Sun-Times file

The Illinois Supreme Court is expanding a program to speed up criminal appeals that sometimes take so long in Cook County that people finish their sentences only to win acquittals when they’re out of prison.

The court is recruiting volunteer attorneys to take up the backlog. In February, the court launched a six-month pilot program in Cook County and northern Illinois. Seventy-five attorneys were approved to participate, and they’ve adopted 45 cases and filed 18 briefs.

The program reduced the backlog of criminal appeals cases, Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne M. Burke said Wednesday. Now, the program is being extended to the entire state beginning in December.

“Pro bono attorneys have stepped up to the plate and sacrificed their time and used their considerable talents to achieve access to justice for those whose cases remain pending,” said Judge Bertina Lampkin, an appeals court judge in Cook County.

In January, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis found some people 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 took longer than three years to decide.

The Cook County state’s attorney’s office routinely sought 180-day extensions to respond to appeals because of a shortage of attorneys to handle those cases, the Sun-Times found. And the Office of the State Appellate Defender, which handles most criminal appeals in Cook County, had a serious backlog — 2,700 cases statewide.