A rising number of felonies in Madison County is putting more pressure on the county jail and the offices of the public defender and state’s attorney.
Felonies have risen by almost 30 percent in the past five years, up from 2,639 in 2012, to 3,372 in 2016, according to John Rekowski, the public defender; and in 2017, the amount of felonies was projected to increase to 3,914 — a nearly 50 percent increase since 2012.
Over the same time, Rekowski’s pool of lawyers stayed the same, which has contributed to overcrowding at the jail, he says, and presents a problem to the taxpaying public: pay for a couple new attorneys or foot a potentially much larger bill for jail improvements and expansion.
“The solution to jail overcrowding is ... cutting down the time from charging to disposition,” Rekowski said, but there’s no other way to do that without more attorneys. Even if the county built a bigger jail, he said, it’s only a temporary solution, because if cases aren’t adjudicated in a timely fashion, then that bigger jail will eventually fill up, too.
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The human cost of overcrowding is less tangible.
“Victims are left in limbo for long periods of time, while the defendants and their families are required to sit and wait for their day in court,” Rekowski wrote in his budget request for the next fiscal year. It was not immediately known how long defendants on average have sat in jail waiting for their cases to be heard.
To speed up the time it takes to get suspects out of jail, Rekowski asked the county for $130,000 for two more attorneys, one of whom would be relatively fresh from law school and another who would be more experienced. In addition to a 2 percent raise and a slight increase in pay for an investigator, his total budget request for salaries was $1.27 million — up $160,000 from the $1.11 million he received this year.
A draft version of the budget shows that Madison County Chairman Kurt Prenzler and County Administrator Doug Hulme allotted $1.14 million in pay for next year for the public defender’s office, or about $25,000 more than the public defender’s current budget.
Prenzler called the budget a “work in progress.” Hulme agreed. “When you have a tight budget, it can be painful,” he said.
But Rekowski expressed doubt that the draft budget would cover all of the salaries it was supposed to.
The draft shows the department would gain a full-time attorney, lose a part-time attorney, and receive a 2 percent raise, but those changes are about $30,000 more than what the draft budget outlines. A revised version of the draft budget now accounts for two new full-time public defenders, Hulme said.
Not only has the public defender’s office had to deal with the rise of felonies, but the office needs to staff multiple specialty courts, including the drug treatment court, the veteran’s court, the domestic violence accountability court and the mental health court. In 2012, the drug treatment court was the only specialty court in the county, according to Rekowski.
Specialty courts take time, he wrote in his budget request.
In August, his office spent 88 hours in the domestic violence court alone, or two full weeks of attorney time. Other specialty courts take anywhere from one day a month to a half-day every week. The office has 11 lawyers, four of whom are part-time.
Also, starting in 2018, public defenders will be required to be present at the initial appearance when a defendant is brought to court. Initial appearances are held between six and seven days a week, Rekowski wrote.
Another change could come to Madison County if it is mandated to attend hearings for children on the weekend and holidays, which Cook County was forced to do after a lawsuit was brought against it. If that doesn’t happen, then the General Assembly could pass a law that forces the rest of the state to follow suit.
Pressure on the state’s attorney and jail
The public defender’s office isn’t the only one feeling the pressure of more felonies.
“We have been overloading our attorneys for a long time,” Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons said.
With more felonies, his office is charging more defendants, which creates more work for prosecutors, higher case loads, less time per case, more burnout and longer stays in jail, Gibbons said.
Gibbons, who’s been the Madison County state’s attorney since 2010, said that he first prepared a budget for his office in 2012, and since then, he didn’t think he’s asked for more attorneys. Each one currently handles between 300 and 500 felonies.
“That’s a lot of cases to be responsible for,” he said.
At the same time, the state’s attorney is trying to increase the conviction rate, but the longer cases spread out, the worse his chances are of conviction. It takes between six and 18 months for a felony to be resolved, but the Illinois Supreme Court mandated that the prosecution must be ready within 120 days if defendants are in custody, and 160 days if they are not, Gibbons said.
2,639Number of felonies in Madison County in 2012
3,372Number of felonies in Madison County in 2016
3,914Projected number of Madison County felonies in 2017
If the defense asks for more time, then they get it, but cases have drawn out for so long that sometimes witnesses have died. People can flee. Arguments become stale. And, in a few cases, important evidence becomes unusable.
“It does have a limiting effect on our ability to prosecute cases sometime,” he said. He is requesting three new attorneys.
Some improvements have made it easier on the state’s attorney, like the ability to pay traffic tickets online, Gibbons said. Another way he’s trying to improve efficiency is by working with the public defender’s office to set up a sort of quick-action group that could identify cases that can be resolved quickly to reduce overcrowding at the jail.
Overcrowding puts the county at risk of a lawsuit from someone claiming that their right to a speedy trial was violated, but, more immediately, it is already the source of civil rights claims. With more people in the jail, the sewers back up more frequently, subjecting inmates to poor conditions.
Madison County Sheriff John Lakin said the jail hit a crisis about a month ago when the population hit 361, in a jail that holds a maximum of 312 inmates. “Every day when I arrive at work I hope the number is below 312,” he said, but especially around a holiday weekend, the day rooms may be full of inmates for whom there are no beds.
The average daily population in September was 316 inmates, according to the sheriff’s department.
Lakin said there is a system in place among the state’s attorney’s office, the public defenders and private attorneys to try to expedite cases when the jail is overcrowded. That system has always been in place, he said, but now it’s just about every day as they look at the jail population and put things in motion to lower the headcount.
In reality, however, Lakin said he has the least influence on the population. “We’re in charge of a bathtub full of water, and I have no control over the drain or the spigot,” Lakin said.
It’s not just a matter of discomfort when the jail is overfull, Lakin said. More inmates does not equal more jailers, and he has had two employees injured in the last couple of days. One of them was scheduled for surgery Thursday, he said.
“It is a dangerous job and they do have to get physical with the inmates from time to time,” Lakin said. “If the numbers are higher, it puts more stress on the staff.”
Lakin said he believes some of the increase in jail population is due to the opioid crisis. “We’re starting to feel the effects in Madison County,” he said.
While the long-running project to renovate the jail is moving forward, Lakin said none of the plans involve adding bed space. “It’s really just repairing infrastructure,” he said — sewage, plumbing, electrical work, fire suppression, etc.
But that’s going to cause its own problems: when renovation is underway next year, the cell blocks will each have to be emptied in order to let the construction take place. With a cell block closed, the maximum capacity for the jail will go down to 270, Lakin said.
“It’s going to put a bigger burden on the judicial system,” he said. “We’re already having a hard time keeping it below 312.”