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Record Delays

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk promises "dramatic procedural changes" after missing records "crisis" slows legal process for hundreds of inmates.

By Patrick McCraney/BGA and Dane Placko/FOX 32

October 23, 2013 1:12 PM

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Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown

The appeals process for hundreds of Illinois prisoners has needlessly dragged on because the keeper of court records – the Cook County Circuit Court clerk's office – has lost or misplaced scores of critical records, the latest knock against a government agency often criticized for poor management.

The paperwork snafus got so bad earlier this year that Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown created what she described as a "S.W.A.T. team" of supervisors to try to track down the errant records – some of which have been missing for more than a year.

While progress has since been made in locating some paperwork, the Illinois appellate defender's office – the public agency that handles appeals for inmates who can't afford their own lawyers – relayed that numerous files are still outstanding, delaying work by the agency and, therefore, potentially lengthening prison stays for detainees who contend they were wrongly convicted or otherwise are entitled to new trials.

An April letter to Brown from Deputy Defender Alan Goldberg details some of the frustration, noting officials first pointed out this "major problem" in October 2011, but by April "virtually no progress has been made."

"You have to make sure that you change the business process, so those kinds of things don't happen going forward," Brown said.

Late Friday, after the Better Government Association and FOX 32 inquired about record-keeping failures in the Circuit Court clerk's office, Brown put out a press release touting "dramatic procedural changes to improve [the] response time" in recouping documents. Those changes include the creation of a "S.W.A.T. team" to untangle the mess, according to the press release.

Goldberg's boss, state Appellate Defender Michael Pelletier, declined to speak publicly for this story.

Since these are "post-conviction petitions" – second appeals, in other words – there's little risk someone could win a new trial solely because of missing paperwork, although it's possible, according to University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman.

"An even not-so-enterprising attorney should be able to make powerful arguments [for the right to a new trial]," Futterman said.

Deborah Borman, a law professor at Northwestern University, disagreed, saying: "It is unlikely that a defendant would be entitled to a new trial on a post-conviction motion due to a lost or misplaced trial record."

Either way, DePaul University law professor Len Cavise said problems finding documents are all too common under Brown's watch.

len+cavise+FOX32"It's a patronage office. You have a lot of people who got their job through patronage and they figured they wouldn't have to work for a living," Cavise said.

This is just the latest snafu for Brown. She's been routinely criticized for not only inefficiencies in her office – with lost files and slow service virtually epidemic – but also for her political activities, including soliciting employees for campaign donations. Brown made news in 2010 when the BGA and FOX exposed her practice – since halted – of allowing employees to wear jeans to work if they donated cash toward a charity fund. The county inspector general subsequently investigated, finding: "Although there are records of managers collecting and submitting funds to the accounting department, the [inspector general] could not verify that the managers submitted all the money collected from employees."

Meanwhile, the latest revelation comes as Brown's office begins a renewed push in the Illinois General Assembly to raise court-filing fees. A bill currently sitting in a state Senate committee would hike filing fees by $20 per case in Cook County, generating millions of dollars, which Brown's office said will improve warehouse tracking.

This article was written and reported by the Better Government Association's Patrick McCraney and FOX 32's Dane Placko. They can be reached at (815) 483-1612 or pmccraney@bettergov.org.

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