By DENNIS B. FRADIN A free-lance writer residing in Evanston, he has published stories and articles in The Saturday Evening Post. Scholastic, and the Chicago Sun-Times. He attended Northwestern University on a creative writing scholarship and graduated in 1967.
Evaluating court efficiency in different parts of the state, court watchers from the League of Women Voters find that justice is not always being administered fairly. Soaring crime rates. Sack of time and inadequate staff produce what they feel to be "assembly line justice'
IN 1974 the League of Women Voters of Illinois initiated a court watching project, monitoring the courts of Cook and three other Illinois counties. The project was funded primarily by a $50,000 grant from the Illinois Law Enforcement Commission (ILEC). The monitors were 259 volunteers who were trained to watch and report objectively on court proceedings.
Barbara Fenoglio is the project director. She is a 20-year veteran of the League of Women Voters who once worked as a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal. "This is one of the first citizens' court watching projects on a statewide basis. The significance of this project is that no one hut us really watches these courts," says Mrs. Fenoglio. "If we didn't do the job, it wouldn't get done."
From January through June of 1975 the League watchers observed misdemeanor courts. Misdemeanors are lesser crimes than felonies, and range in seriousness from shoplifting to possessing cannabis (marijuana), to aggravated assault. The court watchers observed 60,000 proceedings. When they were done each day, the monitors were all asked this question:
Were you left with the feeling that justice was being fairly administered?
In downstate Champaign County 95 per cent of the court watchers said "Yes." In Warren County, 97 per cent answered "Yes." In DuPage, 86 percent of the monitors said "Yes." In suburban Cook County, 87 per cent responded "Yes." But in the city of Chicago less than 50 per cent of the court watchers thought that justice was being administered fairly. If the conclusion of half the court observers is correct, the next question is why? What is the problem with the Chicago courts?
Well, first of all, Chicago's huge crime rate makes it difficult for the courts to be effective. Largely due to Chicago, the Circuit Court of Cook County (with its multitudinous branches) is the largest court in the world. It handles 80,000 misdemeanor and ordinance violations a year. The felony courts are also jammed up. According to the office of State's Attorney Bernard Carey: "It would take four years to clear the dockets even if no new cases were added. From the time of arrest to the time of disposition, it takes 13 months for the average felony case to be completed." There are currently 24 felony trial judges in Cook County. This is not nearly enough to handle the enormous number of serious crimes committed in the Windy City. In 1975, there were 818 homicides in Chicago — more than two- thirds of the state's entire total. I went to Violent Crimes Court in the Cook County Criminal Courts Building and saw preliminary hearings for nine accused murderers — within a single hour.
"Almost all of the problems are systemic rather than personnel matters in the misdemeanor courts," says Mrs. F'enoglio. "T he judges are burdened by too many cases, dozens a day sometimes. There are not enough public defenders or state's attorneys. Things are sometimes so hurried that defendants don't even understand the charges against them or the dispositions of their cases. What we have here is assemblyline justice."
When the 1975 court watchers were finished, their data was compiled. A public report was drawn up by a committee comprised of professors, lawyers, judges and lay people. Suggestions were made to improve the quality of justice. Based on these suggestions, numerous changes were promised in the courts. In Chicago, information officers are to be stationed outside some high-volume courtrooms to answer questions from the public. Daily calendars are to be posted outside each courtoom. Pamphlets are being prepared to explain defendants' rights and responsibilities in both English and Spanish.
A confidential report concerning the conduct of the judges was also issued — to the ILEC, Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, Chicago Bar Association, Chicago Council of Lawyers, Illinois State Bar Association, Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board and the presiding judges of the six municipal districts in Cook County Circuit Court. "More than anyone else, it is the judge who sets the tone of the court," says
August 1976 / Illinois Issues/3
Continuances and victimless crimes jam court dockets and hamper justice
Mrs. Fenoglio. "Most are good. But of course we've seen some who are not."
Circuit Court judges in Illinois are elected to a six-year term. However, the law also provides for associate circuit judges, who are appointed to four-year terms by circuit court judges, according to rules administered by the Illinois Supreme Court. An elected circuitjudge who wishes to remain in office runs for retention with no opposition. Since 1964, only one judge has not been retained. Any of the judges can be removed, however. The Judicial Inquiry Board (see "Who judges the judges? Why, other judges, that's who!" by Jean Williams, August 1975, p. 238) investigates complaints against judges. The Board can prosecute a judge before the Illinois Courts Commission. The Commission has the power to censure, reprimand, suspend, or remove a judge from office.
"The judges are definitely aware that we are watching them," says Mrs. Fenoglio. "Our mere presence, therefore, can be of value. As a matter of fact, in several courts someone told our monitors, 'You should see how the judge acts when your people aren't here.'"
In September 1975 the League of Women Voters received another $50,000 grant from the ILEC. This year, 309 monitors observed misdemeanor or felony courts in seven Illinois counties. I wanted to see for myself what felony preliminary hearing courts are like, so I accompanied two Cook County monitors. First, I went with a former school teacher, Ethyle Hilkevitch, to district felony court in Evanston. "Most people get their impression of court from movies and TV shows," Mrs. Hilkevitch told me before the gavel sounded. "As you'll see, the reality is quite different."
It certainly was. We were not listening to actual trials, but preliminary hearings. At a preliminary hearing, the judge decides whether there is "probable cause" to justify a trial. And in most of the preliminary hearings we watched, the defendants or the prosecution asked for continuances; psychiatric continuances, continuances to round up witnesses, continuances to prepare a case. All the continuances were granted. Later, if a case actually went to trial, one or more continuances could again be granted. Continuances are a major reason why the average felony case in Cook County takes 13 months.
"Legal minds should address themselves to continuances," insists Mrs. Hilkevitch. "The first one is routinely granted anyway. But each time the case is called, everything has to be written up and added to the file. Personally, I'm surprised that the whole court system hasn't collapsed under the weight of paper."
Often the continuances — which are used by both the defense and prosecution — are just lawyers' ploys. It's bad enough being raped or assaulted. But to appear again and again in court can be draining for the victim. A rape victim may be so embarrassed as to eventually drop charges. Mrs. Hilkevitch suggests a way to alleviate the continuance problem. "Since the first is always granted, perhaps it could be done in a mechanical way — by filling out a slip of paper. Then you wouldn't have to bring everyone into court."
There is one kind of case that wastes a lot of time. "This is the victimless crime," says Mrs. Hilkevitch. "Every year, thousands of women are hauled in on prostitution. I think the prostitution laws discriminate against women, but that's the law." An example of another victimless crime is the possession of marijuana — for which you can be sent to jail, even if no one was hurt by your actions.
On another day, I accompanied monitor Jane Campbell to Violent Crimes Court in Chicago's Cook County Criminal Courts Building. It was here that I saw nine people charged with murder within a single hour. I got so used to hearing about people getting knifed and shot in the head, that after a while, a case of aggravated assault seemed relatively insignificant. "This judge has 90 people scheduled for preliminary hearings on violent crimes today," said Jane Campbell. "I think that justice is served as well as possible cosidering the numbers in these courts."
Sitting there, I saw that most of the accused were jobless, undereducated, members of minority groups. Most of them also had a previous criminal record. As sociologists have been arguing for years, crime is closely related to education, job opportunities, and the pitiful state of our penal institutions. According to the Office of the Cook County State's Attorney, Cook County will have 20 more felony courts — making a total of 44 — by January 1, 1977. But this will just help the courts tread water as the crime rate escalates, and will do nothing towards alleviating the underlying causes of crime.
The League's court watching for 1975-76 ended on June 1. Local and state committees then began analyzing the data. The state report will be ready in October and may be obtained by writing to:
"Illinois Court Watching Project"
League of Women Voters of Illinois
67 East Madison
Chicago, Illinois 60603
There will also be separate reports for Cook, DuPage, Warren, Champaign, Rock Island, St. Clair and Winnebago Counties. You may receive summaries of any of the county reports by writing to the above address.
This project started in Illinois, but it will not end here. "We have set up a project model," Mrs. Fenoglio says, "so that any citizens' group anywhere will know how to watch a court. So far, organizations in Kane, McDonough and Will Counties have modeled court watching projects after ours. And, with our help, there are projects underway in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan." The League has published a two-part court watching guide, How to Watch a Court ($5.50 plus tax), which may be obtained by writing to the League's office at the above address. Part I, which deals with misdemeanor courts, is available for $2.50; Part II, which deals with felony courts, is $3.00.
Everything that happens in a court affects the public. Every time an accused murderer gets off on a technicality, every time an innocent person Wastes years in prison, every time a drunken driver gets off because he knows the judge, we may suffer at a later date. In 1977 the League of Women Voters will be out there watching the courts once again. It's good to know that someone will be watching.ž
4/ August 1976 / Illinois Issues