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."
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A July letter from Goldberg to Brown is even more blunt: "Historically, it seems that your office waits until a problem is beyond a crisis and only then works feverishly to correct it," Goldberg wrote.
The records in question deal with previous appeals cases. For the appellate defender's office to determine whether someone sitting in prison has a shot at a second (or subsequent) appeal, the office needs to see the original appeals records, which contain transcripts and other court documents.
In order to see those records, the appellate defender's office has to request them from Brown's office. In some instances, they are turned over to the appellate defender's office within a couple of weeks, which Goldberg said "is reasonable."
At the time of the July letter, the appellate defender's office had 128 outstanding requests for records with Brown's office, 18 of which had been out for more than a year, and 40 of which were out for more than six months.
While some of those records since have been found, there's a constant flow of new requests. As of this week, the appellate defender had 86 requests with Brown's office for appeals records, officials said. The appellate defender has been waiting for records from 10 cases for more than a year, and 25 for more than six months.
This means there have been people sitting in prison for more than a year, waiting to hear if their appeal can go forward, which Brown admits is a "civil liberties" issue. So far, no one who's had documents missing for a long period of time has actually gone on to win a new trial or a reversal of conviction.
Legal experts say that kind of success is rare at this level.
People making these types of appeals are generally felons in prison, with convictions for everything from murder on down, officials said. The appellate defender's office would not name the inmates with missing records, or identify those pursuing appeals through the agency.
Aside from a human cost associated with someone sitting in prison longer than necessary, there's a financial cost. Depending on the facility, it costs Illinois taxpayers between $15,000 and $32,000 a year to keep one inmate in a state prison, according to data published by the Illinois Department of Corrections.
So why are these problems occurring now?
The appellate defender's office hasn't been making any more document requests than normal, officials said.
Brown's spokeswoman acknowledged that at least part of the problem traces to the work habits of Brown's clerical employees at the various warehouses that store old records.
"It appears that in many instances the staff had not initially done a very good job of searching for the files," the spokeswoman said.
Brown said she's since "tightened up" the system used to track the files to make sure it doesn't keep happening. The office has made management changes – with reprimands to some employees – and is beginning to implement a plan to digitize criminal case records, according to Brown's spokeswoman.
"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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.