Anne M. Burke
Anne M. Burke

An Illinois Supreme Court justice on Thursday voiced her frustration at the court’s inability to pressure Cook County officials to change their procedures on how people are detained before trial.

During her keynote address at an event on criminal justice reform Thursday, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke highlighted the little progress that has been made in addressing these procedures.

Procedures, she said, that led to close to overcrowding at the Cook County Jail.

The Supreme Court has been facilitating these efforts since September 2013, organizing meetings between the Cook County sheriff, circuit court chief judge, public defender, state’s attorney, circuit clerk and board president. This group meets every six weeks, Burke said.

“Yet cooperation has not always been easy to obtain,” Burke said, referencing how one unnamed county official missed the first meeting because of a “previous commitment.”

The Supreme Court also put together its own team to audit the Cook County Circuit Court’s Pretrial Services Program.

The team issued 40 recommendations in March 2014, although very few of these have been implemented, Burke said.

“Still, there are many barriers preventing us from moving forward in a reasonable and cooperative manner,” Burke said. “Personal agenda and lack of leadership have been the most difficult issues.”

“As I stand here today, I believe that our entire community needs to be aware of this breakdown in our legal system and the lack of cooperation in resolving the problems,” she added.

Burke’s comments came during her keynote address at an event on criminal justice reform hosted by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and the Illinois Justice Project on Michigan Avenue.

Taking questions after her prepared remarks, Burke indicated that cultural changes are needed to address the high number of inmates in the Cook County Jail.

Burke said the population of the jail as of Monday was 8,631 inmates. Maximum capacity is just over 11,000 inmates.

“These detainees are never trusted and everyone needs to get an opportunity to be trusted,” Burke said. She said many judges are worried about “something happening” if they release a person instead of detaining them before trial, but they need to accept that risk.

The justice pointed to several media reports and personal anecdotes that demonstrate the need for reforming the way in which Cook County handles, processes — and ultimately detains — those who are charged with a crime and before they come to trial.

She cited a May 25, 2013, story from the Chicago Sun-Times which found that, at the time, there were 539 people who had been detained at the Cook County Jail for at least two years while waiting for their trials to begin.

Forty detainees had been awaiting trial for more than five years, she added.

“The situation hasn’t gotten any better since then,” she said.

She referred to the dilemma of an 18-year-old named George who was arrested and charged with battery after getting into a fight with other high school students.

The judge in that case refused to lower George’s bond or release him on electronic monitoring and “expressed annoyance” when George brought six witnesses to bond court to demonstrate his good character.

She also cited the story of a 12-year-old who killed himself while he was detained at the downstate Franklin County Detention Center.

“The system failed this boy, just as it failed George,” Burke said. This tragedy is emblematic of the breakdown of our justice system — both juvenile and adult.”

Burke’s frustration at the status quo of criminal justice in Illinois was echoed throughout the day by Chicago lawmakers, researchers, mental health professionals and other criminal justice advocates.

Among the participants were five members of the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, which was created by Gov. Bruce Rauner in February to devise ways in which the state’s prison population can be reduced.

The commission’s goal is to reduce the prison population 25 percent by 2025. The first report is due in January, with a potential second report coming later in 2016, according to Rodger A. Heaton, the governor’s public safety director and homeland security adviser and the commission chairman.

The first report will contain recommendations, which could include a mixture of both legislation and executive actions, Sen. Kwame Y. Raoul said in an interview.

Raoul, Heaton and the other commission members hinted that they were looking at lengths of sentences and their underlying statutes as well as additional training for law enforcement and judges.

For instance, Heaton said there are 7,300 felons who are imprisoned on a Class IV felony — which includes crimes like aggravated battery — but only end up being imprisoned for an average of seven months.

“You really can’t do anything with somebody if they’re only imprisoned for a year, year and a half, in terms of rehabilitation,” Raoul said in the same interview.

“So we really have to look at if it makes sense for certain offenders who are going to spend a few months in the Department of Corrections, to spend the type of money we’re spending to send them there. Could there be better options locally?”