SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Supreme Court is expanding a program that allows attorneys to volunteer on criminal appeals cases currently making up an extensive backlog.
The Volunteer Pro Bono Program for Criminal Appeals will include the 3rd, 4thand 5thAppellate Districts, located in central and southern Illinois, starting Dec. 1. A six-month pilot version of the program was launched in February, but only for the 1stand 2ndAppellate Districts, which are made up of Cook County and the rest of northern Illinois, respectively.
In any criminal case determined by a circuit court, a person has the right to request a review of the decision by an appellate court, with exceptions for cases appealed directly to the state’s Supreme Court.
The pro bono program has volunteer attorneys assist the Office of the State Appellate Defender with pending criminal appeals pro bono, which means free of charge. According to a Wednesday release from the state’s highest court, the six-month pilot program saw 75 attorneys approved, with 42 cases assigned and 18 appellant briefs submitted by volunteer attorneys currently pending before courts in the first two districts.
“The pilot program has worked in reducing the backlog of criminal appeals cases,” Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke said in a statement. “I would like to thank everyone involved for their hard work in getting the pilot program up and running and now organizing for a successful rollout for the rest of the state.”
According to a spokesperson for the Illinois Supreme Court, the Appellate Defender’s Office’s backlog of criminal appeals peaked at approximately 3,800 cases in 2017. As of Oct. 22, the backlog is currently at 1,917 cases.
In a state budget hearing in February, State Appellate Defender James Chadd called the backlog “a crisis in the criminal justice system,” noting that it was driven upward by a two-year impasse between legislative Democrats and Republican ex-Gov. Bruce Rauner during which the state operated without a budget.
The impasse occurred beginning in July 2015, lasting 736 days, after lawmakers allowed a temporary income tax hike to expire which decreased the individual income tax rate from 5 percent to 3.75 percent. That reduced state revenues by about $4.5 billion, but in the absence of a state budget targeting cuts in spending for two years afterward, the state continued to spend at a rate far outpacing revenues. As a result, many agencies, public schools and universities all eventually saw drastic drops in funding as the state’s backlog of unpaid bills eventually rose as high as $15 billion.
By the time Chadd came to the committee in February with a 6.8 percent budget increase request, the backlog of criminal appeals decreased to 2,672 as the impasse had ended about two years prior when lawmakers overrode Rauner to pass a state budget that increased the income tax from 3.75 percent to 4.95 percent.
“The reason for that (decrease in the appeals backlog) is one thing and one thing primarily — and that is we’ve been fully funded for both years that I’ve been state appellate defender,” Chadd said in February. “That has made all the difference. That is why our backlog has gone down, and as long as we stay fully funded and fully staffed, I anticipate that our backlog will continue to go down at that rate.”
Lawmakers went on to approve the increase for the fiscal year which began July 1, upping funding for the Office of the State Appellate Defender by $1.6 million, bringing its budget to just shy of $25 million. Since that hearing, the appeals backlog has decreased by more than 700.
Chadd’s office represents Illinoisans who cannot afford private attorneys but are often appealing serious charges. He said the office handles “the vast majority of criminal appeals.”
Some appellate districts go through more than a thousand cases per year, and appeals can take years before they’re resolved. In some cases, people finish the terms of their sentence even if they eventually win their appeal and acquittal.
Interested attorneys can submit an application to join the pro bono program at http://illinoiscourts.gov/supremecourt/probono. Eligible attorneys must have appellate experience or prior experience clerking for Supreme Court or appellate court justices or working in the appellate division of a state or federal agency.
Attorneys who do not meet the requirements to join the program can participate under the supervision of an eligible attorney or complete a five-week training course put on by the Appellate Defender’s Office to become eligible. Attorneys who complete the course will also receive credit for doing so.
“I am overwhelmed by the level of commitment shown by legal counsel in the 1stand 2ndDistricts to the Supreme Court’s call for pro bono counsel to help eradicate the backlog of appeals pending in our appellate courts,” 1stDistrict Appellate Justice Bertina Lampkin said in a release. “With the addition of pro bono attorneys from the 3rd, 4thand 5thDistricts, I am confident that, in the near future, we will achieve timely, effective, and expeditious resolution of cases.”
Capitol News Illinois Bureau Chief Jerry Nowicki contributed to this report.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.