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Prosecutors bid godspeed
Picking up pace of trials tied into Cook County budget

Tuesday, January 25, 2005
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

The Cook County Board pushed officials Monday to speed up criminal cases that are taking years to get through the court system while asking those same officials to cut costs and personnel.
Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine said he would meet today with Paul Biebel, the presiding judge of the criminal court, to go over cases that have languished two years or more in the system without going to trial. Devine said he will continue to meet with Biebel monthly "until this backlog of older cases is cleared."

At the same time, Devine and Chief Judge Timothy Evans on Monday begged that their budgets not be cut.

Facing a $73 million budget gap and hoping to avoid tax increases proposed by President John Stroger, members of the finance committee have been pressing all offices and departments to cut 2 percent off their proposed budgets.

Devine said he would cut 1 percent of his $101 million budget, but would not cut deeper unless forced to by the county board. Evans said he could not cut anything from his $174 million budget without cutting "muscle and bone."

The finance committee hearing broke down into a shouting match after Stroger objected to Commissioner Anthony Peraica's efforts to question Devine about the office's accounting practices.

Stroger told Peraica, "I spend half my time explaining to the black community that you're not jumping on me because I'm black."

Peraica responded it was "unfortunate that when logic fails, the race card is brought out," saying he was "personally offended."

After some unintelligible shouting among a dozen commissioners, calls for "order" and gavel-banging by committee chairman John Daley, sometimes-ally Commissioner Earlean Collins criticized Stroger for failing to respect the work of the committee.

Last week Sheriff Michael Sheahan said overcrowding at Cook County Jail is caused mostly by cases dragging in court, so county board members tried to wring out of Devine and Evans a plan to fix the problem. Devine and Evans said defense attorneys are to blame for long waits before trial.

"This is the state's attorney's and the judge's responsibility," Collins said. "Somehow you are going to have to step up in court and demand that these cases go to trial unless there is a legitimate reason."

Devine said he ordered prosecutors in Chicago, Skokie and Bridgeview several months ago to object to requests for delays from defense attorneys unless there were compelling reasons.

Prosecutors also are trying to do more with less, he said, handling increased case loads with fewer assistant state's attorneys than were in place in 1997.

Demands on prosecutors' time will increase this year as a state law kicks in requiring prosecutors and police to videotape interrogations of murder suspects. Devine said that could mean some prosecutors spending 20 hours approving murder charges instead of four.

Money is running short in other parts of his budget too, Devine said.

"We have the possibility that, with the situation in the extradition budget for the first time in history, Cook County will not be able to bring back to this jurisdiction a person accused of a violent crime," he said.

Devine said he could save 1 percent by delaying some hires, but cutting further would mean a loss of vital services and closing some community prosecution offices where prosecutors interact with residents in problem areas.

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