Efforts underway for statewide public defender system to ‘even legal playing field’

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(The Center Square) – Arguing people are “pleading guilty to offenses that they otherwise would not be pleading to,” Northwestern University Child and Family Justice Center attorney Stephanie Kollman is backing legislation designed to bring equity to the criminal justice system.

“The issue that’s being identified is really a crisis in Illinois, insufficient resources and also insufficient public defenders,” Kollman told The Center Square. “What’s also needed is some infrastructure to ensure that public defenders have the independence of the judiciary so that they can really zealously represent their clients without any sort of supervisory conflicts.”

Filed by Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, and coming in the wake of a 2021 study commissioned by the Illinois Supreme Court that found issues ranging from a deficit in overall funding to a lack of independence from political influence within the system, the so-called Office of Public Defense Trial Support bill also seeks to create a statewide office that offers public defenders greater support and resources as they strive to defend the often indigent criminal defendants they represent.

While Harmon is pushing to see the bill become law by the end of the ongoing spring session, between now and then Kollman is hoping to see even more tweaks made to it in the name of fairness and equity.

“What’s being proposed is sort of a broad start,” she added. “What would be a more robust approach would be to ensure that defenders are structurally independent of the judicial branch.”

Kollman said there are around 60 counties in Illinois where public defenders serve at the pleasure of the chief judge for that circuit.

“They can be removed for no cause at all, and this means that they aren’t really free to speak out in many cases and there’s the fact that they have caseloads that might be two or three times recommended level,” she said.

In addition, Illinois is one of just seven states not to have a state agency in place responsible for overseeing trial-level public defense services in adult criminal cases, and no source of funding has been earmarked for Harmon’s plan.

“I would say it’s a multi-alarm fire,” Kollman added. “The defenders around the state are under-resourced compared to the prosecution by at least $100 million a year. Prosecutors have the resources of tens of thousands of members of law enforcement to rely on in investigating their cases, whereas defenders have to provide all of their own investigatory resources. To say there’s an uneven playing field when there’s two sides of a courtroom is a gross understatement.”

Legislators continue session this week.

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