State money on the way to boost public defender offices

By Chicago 5 Min Read

URBANA — Staff members in the Champaign County Public Defender’s Office are in for a bonus courtesy of money the Illinois Legislature is doling out to help counties with the implementation of the SAFE-T Act.

Sixth Circuit Chief Judge Randy Rosenbaum said the General Assembly set aside $10 million for all the counties in Illinois, with the exception of Cook, to assist public defender offices as they begin a new kind of detention process Monday now that cash bonds will no longer exist.

Half the appropriation, Rosenbaum said, is intended for each county to get at least $50,000.

The other $5 million is being doled out pursuant to a formula based on the number of criminal filings and the poverty levels in each county, he said.

“The chief judges have the authority to tinker with that a little,” said Rosenbaum, who is the administrative judge for Champaign, DeWitt, Douglas, Macon, Moultrie and Piatt counties.

As the county’s presiding judge, he also has the authority to hire and fire the public defender.

Rosenbaum learned last week that the money being funneled through the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts is available now and should be in the hands of the counties within a month.

Of the six counties in the circuit, Champaign stands to get the biggest bite at around $132,000.

Macon will receive about $124,000, Douglas and DeWitt counties about $86,000 each, and Piatt and Moultrie about $79,000 each.

Champaign County Public Defender Lis Pollock said because it is not clear if the General Assembly intends to appropriate that amount each year or if this is just a one-time payout, she is reluctant to spend it on new staff members who could help reduce caseloads.

“I’m going to be giving my current staff a bonus,” said Pollock, who’s been the county’s public defender since early December. “As of Monday, we will have 14 attorneys, three secretaries, one investigator and one executive assistant.”

Pollock said she will not be giving herself a bonus and has not yet decided the amount her co-workers will get.

“I want my people to be taken care of,” she said, adding that other items she intends to buy with the money include new furnishings for the public defender’s office that will be housed in the Scott Bennett Building across Main Street from the courthouse.

“I want my people to be appreciated and feel as though they have a decent place to work,” she said. “That contributes to how people feel about their work.”

Renovation of the former Champaign County Bank and Trust building has been underway for several months. It is expected to be ready for occupancy by the sheriff and other county offices some time in 2024.

Pollock said she also intends to spend the money to send her assistants to training conferences and for office equipment, such as wireless headsets for the secretaries and a cellphone for her investigator.

Rosenbaum said the money may also be used to pay for expert testimony and new technology.

While he conceded the smaller four counties of the circuit have far fewer criminal filings, Rosenbaum said they also don’t have the resources that Champaign and Macon counties have, so they have unmet needs.

“There are some counties that have almost no lawyers. One goal of this is to encourage lawyers to become public defenders,” he said.

Rosenbaum is now serving on a statewide task force of judges that is studying how to improve the public defender system in Illinois.

That body intends to make recommendations to the Illinois Supreme Court very soon, he said.

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