Court faces case backlog

State’s attorney Mark Isaf explains challenges, understaffing in local judicial system

By GARY HENRY ghenry@prairiepress.net
Posted 7/19/21

Edgar County State’s Attorney Mark Isaf met with Edgar County Board members Monday, July 12, to discuss using some of the federal stimulus money coming to the county to help his office cope …

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Court faces case backlog

State’s attorney Mark Isaf explains challenges, understaffing in local judicial system

Posted

Edgar County State’s Attorney Mark Isaf met with Edgar County Board members Monday, July 12, to discuss using some of the federal stimulus money coming to the county to help his office cope with the number of cases working their way through the judicial system.

Isaf said there is a difference between the public perception of how the criminal justice system works and the reality faced by prosecutors, public defenders and others associated with the courts.

“People watch TV, and everything is done in an hour,” said Isaf. “Criminal justice doesn’t work that way.”

He explained when someone is arrested and subsequently charged, a series of steps are followed to make sure the process is done by the rules, and that includes setting bond within 48 hours. All defendants are entitled to presumption of innocence, probable cause hearings in felony cases, fitness hearings where appropriate, discovery, legal representation and a fair trial.

“The rules are set by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to protect the individual from the state,” said Isaf. “I am not complaining. That is how our system works, and it is right.”

Isaf ‘s office files an average of 1,500 cases per year, with between 230-240 felony cases. The rest of the cases are a mix of misdemeanors, driving under the influence, traffic offenses and juvenile cases.

“That doesn’t include DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services) cases to remove children for neglect and/or abuse,” Isaf said, adding 20 such cases have been filed so far this year, which is above the norm.

Isaf is responsible for the felony cases, and the other filings are handled by assistant state’s attorney Timothy Gilbert, who works 20 hours for Edgar County and 20 hours for Clark County.

On the defense side, public defender William McGrath is assigned in felony, misdemeanor, juvenile, DUIs and some other traffic matters. Some private practice attorneys provide backup public defender services, and McGrath, like Gilbert, splits his time between caseloads in Edgar and Clark counties. 

“There is an American Bar Association standard for what attorneys should handle,” said Isaf. “For felonies, that is 150 cases per year.”

He noted both he and McGrath are well beyond the recommended standard.

“His (McGrath’s) caseload is phenomenally packed,” said Isaf. “I know it is not popular with the public for a criminal to get representation, but a defendant is Constitutionally entitled to competent representation.”

Isaf emphasized he was not speaking on McGrath’s behalf and his comments were based on his personal observations.

“We are fortunate to have this individual as a public defender,” said Isaf. “He is a seasoned attorney, but he may be getting close to retirement.”

In addition to handling the felony cases, Isaf also provides legal advice to the county board and other office holders, plus he represents the county in civil litigation.

Other staff in the state’s attorney’s office includes a full-time administrative assistant and a part-time administrative assistant. Isaf reminded the board members the part-time position was reduced from full-time in 2009 or 2010 as a cost saving measure. He said this year’s office budget is within just $5,000 of where it was in 2010 when the cuts were made.

He acknowledged there is a backlog of cases, which is normal given the requirement to make sure everything is done correctly, but the backlog was aggravated by the year the jail was closed. That was followed by the COVID-19 pandemic when the courts slowed, and the Illinois Department of Corrections stopped taking new inmates.

Such issues slowed getting cases to disposition, but they did not stop new criminal activity.

Edgar County, Isaf said, files almost five felony cases per week. While most of those are resolved in negotiated pleas, approximately four each month result in a prison sentence.

“The system cannot run without plea bargains — 90 to 95% of cases are resolved this way,” he said.

Defendants also contribute to the backlog of cases since they seldom desire a speedy resolution to their charges as they do not want to be sentenced for their actions. Even after a probation sentence is given by the court, the case is not over. Isaf said a good percentage of people on probation re-offend or fail to comply with the terms of the sentence which means they are subject to resentencing.

“These cases stay open for years,” said Isaf.

Physical issues also contribute to the backlog in resolving criminal cases. Edgar County has one courtroom suitable for trials, and it is also used for non-criminal matters like civil suits and divorces. As such, the county has one criminal trial setting per month. More settings are not possible because the assistant state’s attorney and the public defender are splitting their time in Clark County.

The lack of space and personnel also prevents more innovative approaches like drug court, domestic violence court or mental health court, that pull cases out of the stream for separate handling as is done in bigger and better funded jurisdictions.

Given limited resources, Isaf must prioritize which cases get attention. The state is going to move a case involving violence faster than one for property theft or drug offenses.

Isaf told county board members there is no doubt that having a full-time assistant state’s attorney, a second full-time administrative assistant in the office and a full-time public defender, who also has adequate staff resources, would move cases faster. His concern is the funding, and he does not want to use temporary funds to create full-time positions that must be cut in the future when the money is no longer available.

It worries Isaf that keeping the public defender and assistant state’s attorney, with the tremendous workload both jobs carry, as part-time positions will be an impediment to finding replacements in the future should Gilbert take another job or McGrath retire. He noted this is not a unique problem to Edgar County as all small counties are finding it difficult to recruit professional people to work for lower pay than what they can earn in more urban areas.

“We need to be able to sustain the full-time positions,” Isaf cautioned.

Outside forces also have an impact on local decisions. DOC is still limiting the number of new inmates being accepted into the system, and Isaf said the Illinois Department of Health and Human Services stopped accepting mental health cases for confinement in June. That means people getting a prison sentence or those with mental health problems who have committed crimes are remaining in the Edgar County Jail because there is no place else for them. As a result, other defendants are not getting jail sentences because the jail cannot accommodate them.

“People want government to fix problems, but they don’t want to pay taxes to get the problems fixed,” said Isaf.

He estimated half the cases his office encounters are related to mental health or addiction issues.

Board member Karl Farnham Jr. said the mental health and addiction problems must be addressed as part of the design in building a new jail.

Fellow board member Phil Ludington agreed.

“If we are going to build a new jail, we don’t want to stop short,” said Ludington.