Cook County’s court reopening is drawing surprisingly positive reviews

empty courtroom
An empty courtroom at Cook County's Leighton Criminal Court Building. Jury trials have resumed after a near total shutdown during the pandemic. M. Spencer Green / Associated Press
empty courtroom
An empty courtroom at Cook County's Leighton Criminal Court Building. Jury trials have resumed after a near total shutdown during the pandemic. M. Spencer Green / Associated Press

Cook County’s court reopening is drawing surprisingly positive reviews

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It is exceedingly rare to hear positive reviews for Cook County’s massive, complex and overburdened court system. Even the people who have dedicated their lives to it frequently point out the ways it can be unjust, inefficient and frustrating.

However, the handling of the court system’s reopening after a year of near-total shutdown because of COVID-19 is drawing surprisingly high marks from attorneys who work at the main criminal courthouse on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

Data show that the reopening did not result in a widely predicted crush of cases that would overwhelm the courts and require prosecutors to drop cases. And while there have been only a handful of jury trials this year compared to pre-pandemic days, the system is largely back to being fully functional as plea deals once again take the lead role in keeping the system afloat.

Longtime defense attorney Tony Thedford said criminal cases in Cook County are moving much faster and more fairly than he would have predicted a year ago.

“To be in the position that we’re in right now, I actually think that it is a victory. And that honestly, people in the system should be applauded,” Thedford said. “I think that what’s happened has been exemplary, frankly, just because we had no precedent for this.”

“A lot more willingness to negotiate”

For more than a year, the right to a speedy trial was suspended in Illinois because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That right was reinstated on Oct. 1 by the state supreme court, and data show that despite doomsday predictions from many attorneys, including State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, prosecutors actually dropped fewer cases in 2021 than in pre-pandemic years.

Data from the state’s attorney’s office show prosecutors have dropped about 6,500 cases in 2021 - that’s far fewer than the number of cases dropped in 2019, before COVID-19 came to America.

“Everybody thought … that once we could demand [trial], everyone was gonna demand. But you got to keep in mind, we all have a bunch of cases,” one longtime public defender said. “If I demand on all my cases, obviously, I can’t be in two places at the same time.”

The public defender, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the threat of speedy trial demands has helped speed things along but he has not seen an increase in actual demands.

In 2021, there have been 350 bench trials and just 31 jury trials for felony cases — both numbers significantly lower than in the years before the pandemic, according to data from the state’s attorney’s office.

Meanwhile, the number of cases coming into the courthouse was down in 2021 compared to the years before the pandemic, according to a WBEZ analysis of prosecutor data.

One area that is back close to normal operations is plea deals. More than 12,000 felony cases have been resolved by a guilty plea in 2021, according to prosecutors. That’s only slightly down from the totals in 2018 and 2019.

First Assistant State’s Attorney Risa Lanier said they have encouraged assistant state’s attorneys to make deals when possible.

“What I told [prosecutors] to do was just to take a look at your cases, and make appropriate offers based upon your evidence and based upon the law, based upon your conversations with your victims,” Lanier said. “So I was not telling anyone to, you know, to give away the candy store or make any sweetheart deals, we want to ensure that the work that we’re doing that we’re continuing to do it with integrity, despite the circumstances that we’re under, but we do empower our [assistants] to look at their cases and to use their discretion.”

Lanier said the relative success of the court reopening can be attributed to the hard, and ongoing work, of line prosecutors. She said even when almost no movement was happening on cases for the first year of the pandemic, prosecutors kept working on their cases - weighing plea deals and preparing for trials.

She said the reopening has gone better than she expected.

“I credit that to the collaboration amongst all criminal justice stakeholders,” Lanier said.

High turnover

Still, court functioning in the time of COVID-19 has not been without its complications and challenges.

Defense attorney Adam Sheppard said he thinks masking and distancing requirements in the courtroom, while necessary for safety, are a detriment to criminal defendants.

Sheppard defended former Northwestern University Professor Wyndham Lathem in his murder trial earlier this year. Lathem was convicted. And Sheppard said he believes masking prevented the jury from connecting emotionally with his client throughout the trial.

“The fact that a defendant is in that mask definitely disadvantages him. It’s hard to connect with someone when they’re in that mask, and feel their plight,” Sheppard said. “Compassion is the great equalizer in our system, and the trier of fact should be able to weigh that.”

Mallory Littlejohn, the legal director at the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, said the biggest issue for her clients who are waiting for justice at the criminal courthouse has been turnover at the state’s attorney’s office.

Littlejohn said she has seen multiple sex crimes cases get delayed because the prosecutor who was working the case left before it got to trial.

“Everything stops for the new prosecutor to get up to speed,” Littlejohn said.

She said she has heard anecdotally from prosecutors that they are leaving because the pandemic has made an already tough and thankless job even harder.

Lanier said she believes that’s why attrition is higher for their office than normal.

“We have seen an increase in attrition, and it’s pretty much in line with not just our office but other prosecutor’s offices across the country and other offices and other industries,” Lanier said.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.