Criminal Justice Project
Diversion and Deferral
The Chicago Council of Lawyers and Chicago Appleseed have made it a top priority to reduce the incarceration rate of nonviolent, low-level offenders in Cook County. Our main strategy for doing so has been to advocate for greater diversion opportunities for these defendants. In particular, we have worked toward the creation of a Diversion Court within the Criminal Division of the Cook County Circuit Court. Diversion Court would allow defendants suffering from mental illness and/or addiction to pursue community-based treatment in lieu of jail and formal charges. Diversion programs have been shown to reduce court processing costs, recidivism, and improve the well being of participants and their communities.
In 2010, we released two significant reports regarding the Cook County criminal justice system:
In February, we released our "Drug Offender Stationhouse Deferral Program" proposal, which advocates for a plan in which diversion candidates are diverted before they reach jail, in the stationhouse.
In October, we released "Cook County Diversion Court: Proposal and Implementation Plan," a comprehensive proposal for the creation of five courtrooms devoted to diversion for nonviolent offenders. A fully implemented Diversion Court would save Cook County an estimated $20 million per year, while furthering the cause of justice.
In December 2007, Chicago Appleseed released its comprehensive "A Report on Chicago's Felony Courts." Extensive research was conducted with the cooperation of the Cook County Public Defender, the Cook County State's Attorney, and the Presiding Judge of the Criminal Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County. The result was an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the felony court system and 50 recommendations for systemic reform. The Cook County criminal justice system has become a de facto community mental health and drug treatment center, and changes must be made to allow the system to respond to this under-funded mandate. Following the release of the report, Chicago Appleseed began work with the major stakeholders and other community organizations to advocate for our recommended reforms.
Research and Advocacy
In 2005, Chicago Appleseed began examining factors affecting the quality of justice in Cook County's felony courts, with an emphasis on the quality of judging and lawyering in the Criminal Division of the Circuit Court. Our examination focused on the main Criminal Courts Building at 26th Street and California Avenue, where most felony cases are tried. The courtrooms hear more than 28,000 cases per year; each judge has on average 275 cases pending at any one time. The adult probation department seeks to handle more than 23,000 offenders. The jail houses nearly 10,000 inmates awaiting trial. The courts struggle to adapt to the realities of operating beyond capacity, but patchwork adaptations are not good enough. The Presiding Judge of the Criminal Division, Cook County State's Attorney, and Cook County Public Defender pledged their cooperation and opened their offices to this study. The Criminal Justice Advisory Board, comprised of local criminal justice experts, worked with Chicago Appleseed research staff to develop a list of issues for investigation. The research staff then conducted hour-long, confidential interviews with 112 judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and private defense attorneys in the system; staff also interviewed forty former defendants, victims, police officers, mental health specialists, and jail correctional officers. Trained law students observed over 550 felony hearings. Each office provided information on their policies and procedures, and the law firm of Sachnoff & Weaver (now Reed Smith LLP) contributed research on the practices of similar court systems across the country.
In December 2007, Chicago Appleseed published "A Report on Chicago's Felony Courts." This comprehensive report serves to shed light on the fundamental problems plaguing the system while at the same time offering meaningful and realistic solutions for change. The report details fifty recommendations for change, including suggestions for reallocation of resources, caseload and workload restructuring, facility improvements and better use of diversion programs. Specific goals include improving the management of the State's Attorney's Office, Public Defender's Office, and the Criminal Division of the Cook County Circuit Court by developing a strategic plan for progressive change in policies, procedures, and programs, advocating for increased funding to improve efficiency by focusing on specific training, personnel and resource needs in the court services system and connected offices, and working to strengthen and clarify the criminal code, specifically addressing drug treatment options and sentencing, to decrease the rate of disproportionate minority imprisonment and mental health issues.