As part of the 2017 budget process, the Kane County Board held a hearing in which the Kane County Public Defender, Kelli Childress, asked for more money to hire 2 more attorneys for her office. Childress testified that the cost to add 2 attorneys will be $72,000 a year. In the hearing, Childress claimed that the attorneys in her office have a higher average caseload per attorney than any other neighboring county. She presented the board with statistics which show that attorneys in her office in Kane County are only able to spend less than 3 hours on each misdemeanor case they are handling. She said that the high average caseload along with a lack of investigative resources raises questions about the quality of the legal defense services that her office can provide indigent criminal defendants. She went on to further state that the lack of resources could cause her attorneys to put pressure on their clients to plead guilty and avoid fighting their cases. This lack of resources assigns a lower priority to poor people than to wealthy people. Her comments caused a concerned response from the Kane County Board President Chris Lauzen. Lauzen started questioning Childress about whether her comments were opening the door to legal liability for the County for claims of wrongful convictions. Imagine if someone was suing the Kane County Public Defender’s office for botching a criminal case and using Childress’s comments at the Board Hearing to prove that her office doesn’t have the resources to provide adequate legal representation in criminal cases. Lauzen asked Childress if there were wrongful convictions in Kane County and Childress answered that she did not know. Lauzen was not happy with that answer. Lauzen continued questioning Childress to make sure she was not making some sort of admission that could be used against Kane County in future litigation and Childress obliged. She clarified that she didn’t know and wasn’t an expert in such matters but that her office needs more assistant public defenders to stay ahead of that danger. Give credit to Lauzen for spotting the potential legal implications of Childress’s statements even though Lauzen is not an attorney.
While I am in no position to question Ms. Childress’s statistics regarding the 3 hours that each attorney in her office is able to spend on each misdemeanor, I find it hard to believe that that they are worse off than any other neighboring county. I find it hard to believe that any Public Defender in any busy metropolitan area is able to spend more than 3 hours working on a misdemeanor case. The quality of legal services provided to the poor is a huge problem that has never received the attention that it deserves. It is simply wrong to deny equal justice to people simply based on their economic resources. Denying justice to poor people diminishes our criminal justice system and puts the entire criminal justice system in jeopardy. The Kane County Board should not be looking to just do enough to avoid legal liability. Why not hold hearings to determine what the Public Defenders Office needs to provide the acceptable amount of legal assistance a criminal defendant needs for us to be proud of our criminal justice system? It’s not like criminals will be more likely to choose to commit crimes in Kane County and take the risk of getting arrested and be criminally prosecuted if the County Board provides adequate funding for the Pubic Defenders Office.
The Board has not decided what they will do with Childress’s request and will continue to consider their 2017 budget.
James Dimeas is an award winning criminal defense attorney and author with more than 24 years of experience aggressively representing his clients in criminal cases. If you have a criminal case in Illinois, contact me in Chicago (312-229-5500), DuPage and Kane (630-504-2096) or Lake (847-696-6458) for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your legal options.