Backlog of 3,759 criminal appeals cases has been resolved, state appellate defender says
Full funding, staffing for 4 years after impasse has allowed appeals to be processed in timely manner
A backlog of cases before the Illinois Office of the State Appellate Defender that the agency’s leader once described as a “crisis in the criminal justice system” has largely been resolved, State Appellate Defender James Chadd told a state Senate committee Tuesday.
Chadd told a Senate judiciary appropriations subcommittee that the backlog of cases at one time exceeded 3,759 amid a two-year budget impasse and extensive periods of underfunding. There are now fewer than 500 cases with complete records before the office, he said.
“We are now able to begin working on a case within a month or two of the date we get a complete record,” he said. “In my 37 years with OSAD, I can remember no time when we're able to get to cases so quickly.”
The Office of the State Appellate Defender represents the state’s most disadvantaged individuals as they appeal criminal charges. That generally includes those who cannot afford private attorneys but are appealing severe charges.
Chadd, who was appointed state appellate defender in 2017 and seated in January 2018, attributed the success in reducing the backlog to the agency being fully funded and fully staffed for the previous four years. He’s been at the agency since 1984.
“And I would like to thank the leadership of this committee and the entire legislature for that,” he said. “It's made all the difference in the world. And I never thought we'd be in this position so quickly.”
“Fully funded” equates to a budget of roughly $26 million, a number he has requested from the General Assembly for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. It’s roughly flat from the current year with a decrease of about $70,000.
It’s an increase from just under $24 million that was budgeted for the agency in Gov. JB Pritzker’s first year in office. It also marks about a 30 percent increase from OSAD’s budget at the height of the budget impasse which occurred from 2015 to 2017.
Chadd said another contributing factor to the decrease in the backlog was that OSAD was able to work effectively throughout the pandemic as the pace of court cases slowed at the trial court level. The agency expects to see an unspecified increase in cases as trial courts return to a normal pace following slowdowns attributable to the pandemic.
The $26 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which still needs approval from the General Assembly and the governor, should allow OSAD to handle any influx of claims, Chadd said. The funding will support 255 employees at the agency, including 195 attorneys.
When Chadd came before the committee in 2020 just before the COVID-19 pandemic became widespread in Illinois, he requested funding authority to add seven new lawyers, he told the committee Tuesday. But since that time, the agency made progress on the backlog at such a pace that it did not need to hire the new attorneys.
“We believe that with 195 attorneys, we can handle any surge of appointments that comes our way,” he said. “And let me be clear about this, no one really knows exactly what that surge is going to look like. We don't know how quickly cases will be prosecuted, and it varies from county to county.”
Chadd also noted a Supreme Court program that connected the appellate defender with pro bono attorneys to help pare down the backlog was helpful but is no longer needed at this time.
Chadd also requested full funding for the state appellate prosecutor’s office – OSAD’s opponents in the courtroom.
“They are our opponents in court but they're also an important part of the criminal justice system,” he said. “And if you fund us but not them, that'll just create another log jam further down the road.”
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