A Rockford Register Star article entitled: “Winnebago County courts consider new measures to speed justice” spoke to the need to streamline the process for prosecuting cases in our criminal justice system. Within the article Chief Judge Eugene Doherty makes this observation: “It’s not like the attorneys are the bad guys here,” Doherty said. “It’s very difficult to manage these heavy caseloads when offices are understaffed and there is high turnover.”
The “attorneys” to whom the judge refers to are the assistant states attorneys in the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s office and defense attorneys. The Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s Office is solely responsible for all criminal cases in the judicial system. The Office authorizes all charges, criminal case filings and subsequent prosecutions. The defense of those cases is divided out among the Public Defender’s Office and hundreds of private lawyers.
Currently the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s office is authorized to have over 50 attorneys in the office but have only 30 or so now. Over the last 10 years, the office has lost more than 100 attorneys, the highest turnover in its history. This personnel deficit places a huge case load burden on the attorneys which is a key reason for the heavy turnover and the inability to prepare for all of the cases they are given.
For the purposes of objectivity and impartiality, justice is said to be blind, but it is neither deaf nor dumb. Every day public safety is compromised in Winnebago County by the lack of effective prosecutions in this county. The current conditions in the State’s Attorney’s Office are the result of at least a decade of a lack of leadership within the office. It also suffers from a lack of commitment to obtaining the training and personnel that the office sorely needs. Without adequate resources, such as authorized attorney levels, cases are slow to be prosecuted. As the article points out, felony cases are processed 11% slower than any time in the last seven years. That figure leads the curious to a court study prepared by Loyola University in June 2018.
The report entitled: “Winnebago County’s Criminal Justice System: Trends and Issues” found three surprising things. A criminal charged with a felony in Winnebago County has the highest probability of not going to prison compared to all other counties in the state, has a good chance that the felony will be dismissed before trial and that in the felony cases that went to trial, the prosecution lost 55% of the time. None of which directly explains why there is such a slowing down of cases processed in the judicial system.
The duty of a prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely convict. In seeking justice, there are several things to consider and among them are: protecting victims, promoting public safety and ensuring a smooth and effective court system. To achieve those goals there needs to be an effective leader within the State’s Attorney’s Office. Without an effective leader the citizens of Winnebago County get the results listed above. Leaders lead. They inspire others to want to follow them.
Ineffective leaders chase away the very people they want to lead. When leadership becomes ineffective, change the leader. Changing the leader will change the outcomes. Changing the outcomes enhances public safety, and I support public safety.
David Gill, a former Winnebago County assistant state’s attorney, is a Republican candidate for state’s attorney.