People wait outside of the Circuit Court of Cook County on Tuesday morning. Several Chicago area branch courts are operating at 50 percent staffing levels. The shortage of staff means court opens late. July 16, 2013 | Alex Wroblewski~Sun-Times
Updated: August 23, 2013 6:16AM
A crowd of people milling around on a hot street waiting for a courthouse to open for the day is a recipe for trouble.
As reported in Wednesday’s Chicago Sun-Times, a crowd of about 80 was standing in muggy 82-degree heat at 9 a.m. on Tuesday because the branch courthouse at Grand and Central hadn’t opened.
The reason? A chronic shortage of available sheriff’s deputies means there aren’t enough people on hand to keep things running on schedule. Cook County officials should act quickly to make sure this doesn’t boil over into a dangerous situation.
According to a veteran sheriff’s employee, similar staffing shortages are hobbling the branch court at Harrison and Kedzie and, to a lesser degree, at the one at Western and Belmont.
As Cook County has trimmed its budget each year, the number of county employees has declined. Cara Smith, spokeswoman for Sheriff Tom Dart, said the sheriff has lost about 500 positions in court services over the past six years and can’t divert personnel from the Cook County Jail, where staffing is mandated by a court consent decree.
“We have limited resources throughout the whole system,”
Kristen Mack, press secretary for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, said the county already has responded to the sheriff’s complaint that his office is understaffed. The county added 42 court deputy positions in the most recent fiscal year to alleviate that, she said.
But last week’s crowd at Grand and Central shows more needs to be done. One answer might be to consolidate some or all of the court’s five city neighborhood branches. Each branch has two courtrooms, one of which is used for bond calls and one for criminal cases, primarily misdemeanors. Even as some branch courts are overcrowded at times, others may finish up their work early and have no proceedings for the rest of the day while remaining open and staffed.
Although he’s never made a formal request, Dart has said he thinks the branch offices are inefficient and should be closed. For its part, the county last week agreed “we will sit down with them and look over the options,” Mack said.
The sheriff’s office also is studying ways to share deputies among courtrooms.
However, all the sheriff and the county can do is make a recommendation. Chief Judge Timothy Evans has the final say over whether a branch court can be closed.
There’s plenty of evidence this discussion is long overdue. Last month, a judge at Grand and Central had to step down from the bench, leave the courtroom and head to the lockup to request a prisoner. That’s a sheriff’s deputy’s job, but none was available.
Longtime defense attorney Dawn Projansky called the current situation “pure chaos” and said delays at the branch courtrooms slow down the whole system because they make lawyers late for calls at other courthouses.
This picture doesn’t look right. Crowds milling around in the street, creating a risk of altercations, because one branch courthouse is overburdened. Empty courtrooms at another that’s underused on a particular day. It’s time to put the whole system under a microscope and figure out how to make it more efficient.