Rush Of Cases As Cook County Courts Reopen Could Force Prosecutors To Drop Charges

Cook County Courthouse
The Cook County Criminal Courthouse in Chicago photographed on May 16, 2017. Andrew Gill / WBEZ
Cook County Courthouse
The Cook County Criminal Courthouse in Chicago photographed on May 16, 2017. Andrew Gill / WBEZ

Rush Of Cases As Cook County Courts Reopen Could Force Prosecutors To Drop Charges

Cook County prosecutors are preparing to drop a large number of criminal cases when the courts fully reopen later this year, because the system will not be able to handle the expected crush of trial demands.

Thousands of criminal cases have built up in Cook County over the past 15 months, as the county’s massive court system has been all-but shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That means thousands of people locked up in jail, on electronic monitoring or out on bond have essentially had their cases on hold. But the waiting caused by the pandemic could mean many people accused of non violent crimes will get off scot-free.

“I think we should be prepared for a system that is going to be overwhelmed,” Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said.

Foxx said that will likely mean dropping a large number of lower-level cases in order to prioritize cases involving violent crime.

“We cannot allow for violent cases to fall through the cracks,” Foxx said. “And so using that calculus, [we have to make] sure that those cases that could be dealt with outside of the system are in fact purged from the system so we can focus our attention on violence.”

The Illinois Supreme Court announced Wednesday that courthouses will return to normal in October, and defendants will once again be able to assert their Constitutional right to a speedy trial, a right the Illinois Supreme Court suspended in March 2020 amid COVID-19.

Defense attorney Adam Sheppard said he expects to see “a flood of speedy trial demands” across the system.

“It is gonna be overwhelming,” Sheppard said.

Foxx said there is no way her prosecutors, or the court system overall, will be able to deal with that coming crush.

“In a scenario where everyone demands [a trial], potentially 30,000-plus cases needing to go to trial within the span of several months, and the reality is our court system, I don’t think there’s any court system in the world that would be prepared to have that many trials just logistically, staff wise, all of it, it would overwhelm the system,” Foxx said.

Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell said not to expect every pending case to have a trial demand. There are reputations, law licenses and the freedom of clients at stake, preventing defense attorneys from asking for a trial unless they are actually ready to proceed. Still, Mitchell said there are plenty of cases that have been ready for trial for months, far more than the system will be able to handle at once.

Mitchell said he was glad to have the right to a speedy trial reinstated, but said there was no justification for keeping it suspended until October.

“That means that our clients will have to wait even more months to have the rights that were endowed to them by the Constitution,” Mitchell said. “We are now at a time where baseball stadiums and basketball stadiums are filled to the brim. And the idea that we can do all that, but … we can’t restore that right, immediately. It’s just, I just can’t wrap my head around it.”

In Illinois, the right to a speedy trial means that if a defendant demands it, prosecutors have to take the case to trial within 120 days if the defendant is in custody, and 160 days if not. If they can’t, the case gets thrown out.

It’s a demand that is made relatively infrequently in Cook County, but Mitchell said the law’s existence keeps pressure on the court to resolve cases as quickly as possible. With the right suspended, many cases have barely moved in a year-and-a-half.

Data from the Cook County state’s attorney show up to 35,000 pending felony cases, about 12% higher than the number of pending cases in June 2019.

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