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Office morale, performance key issues for Democratic Cook Co. state’s attorney candidates

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Eileen O’Neill Burke, left, and Clayton Harris III are candidates for Cook County state’s attorney in the March 19 Democratic primary.

Asked about how they would reduce the delay in bringing cases to trial, candidates running in the Democratic primary for Cook County state’s attorney cited filling office vacancies as a solution.

Published reports indicate more than 130 assistant states attorneys, a record number, resigned in 2022.

“The office is woefully understaffed,” said retired Illinois Appellate Court Judge Eileen O’Neill Burke, who is running against former Cook County prosecutor Clayton Harris III in next month’s primary election. “What that means is basic things aren’t getting done because people don’t have enough time in the day.”

According to Burke, felony courtrooms should have three prosecutors with a 300-case docket. Instead, two assistant state’s attorneys typically oversee a 600-case docket.

“Their dockets are twice what they should be and they’re half-staffed,” she said. Meanwhile “defendants are sitting in custody waiting to go to trial.”

To assist prosecutors with the caseload, Burke proposes assigning one paralegal for every two courtrooms.

Clayton agrees hiring more attorneys and paralegals is necessary, but adds, “we cannot use staffing numbers as an excuse. We need to manage the office, and sometimes people are going to have to put in more time.”

“Under my leadership we’re going to do the work that needs to be done,” he said. “We’re going to roll up our sleeves and we’re going to make sure we’re bringing cases to (trial) and through as fast as possible, but correctly.”

Burke and Harris addressed this and other issues earlier this month during an ABC 7 televised candidate debate.

In response to a question about the reportedly low morale among state’s attorney employees, Harris proposed incentive bonuses and raising prosecutors’ salaries so they are comparable to those of Cook County assistant public defenders.

“We’ll do that,” he said. “We need to meet the attorneys where they are … If an attorney wants to write and be a writer, (he/she) should be in appeals. If they don’t want to be in traffic (court) we move them out.”

He also proposed recruiting specialists from outside the current ranks who might be interested in joining the office, assigning “people where their passion lies.”

“The morale in that office is not going to get better until we solve the staffing issue,” said Burke, who also proposed enlisting retired judges to offer staffers additional training.

“We are going to have the gold standard for training prosecutors in this country,” she said. “It is going to be like getting a master’s degree in trial work.”

State’s Attorney Kim Foxx announced in April she would not seek a third term. Foxx has faced criticism over her support for the elimination of cash bail as part of the SAFE-T Act; her decision not to prosecute low-level offenses, including retail thefts under $1,000; and her handling of the case involving actor Jussie Smollett, who claimed he was attacked in 2019 by two men uttering racial and homophobic slurs. Police determined Smollett staged the attack and he was convicted of five counts of disorderly conduct in December 2021.

As for cases involving high-profile or celebrity defendants like Smollett, Harris said if he’s elected, his office will balance safety and justice and will hold individuals appropriately accountable, regardless of political influence or celebrity.

Burke, who by her account has made 3,000 decisions as a trial court judge and 1,800 as an appellate court justice, promised to exercise good judgment in determining charges, potential pleas and sentence recommendations and said her assistant state’s attorneys would be trained to do the same.

The primary election is March 19. The winner will face Republican Bob Fioretti and Libertarian Andrew Charles Kopinski in the November general election.

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