Kane County leaders debate public defender staffing
Kane County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen put Public Defender Kelli Childress on notice Thursday that she's treading a fine line between seeking more resources for her office and opening the county up to wrongful conviction lawsuits.
Childress asked the county board last month to add two attorneys to her office, at a cost of $72,000 a year. She claimed then, that her staff has a much higher caseload per attorney than any neighboring county.
On Thursday, she presented the judicial and public safety committee with new calculations showing public defenders can spend less than three hours on each misdemeanor case. That's a workload that, paired with a lack of investigative resources, may raise questions about the rigor of the defense her office can provide.
"What we've learned to do is triage," Childress said. "That's not a good thing. There are cases that we have to say, 'I am not putting my time into your case. I am not putting my finances into your case.'"
Childress said not putting time and money into a case means "pressuring our clients to take plea deals because we do not have the resources to prove their innocence." She said that's a legal system that assigns a lower priority to the liberty of the poor than those with wealth.
Those statements triggered fears of legal liability costs in Lauzen.
"You're not saying that we're having wrongful convictions in Kane County, are you?" Lauzen asked.
"What I'm saying is I don't know," Childress replied. "I wish I could say with confidence that we are able to put up enough of a rigorous defense that we are able to prevent wrongful convictions."
That didn't seem to be the answer Lauzen wanted. So he asked Childress to clarify her remarks.
"I'm sure that you're not setting the stage for defense litigators to come in and pursue the statements that you're making here and sue the county," Lauzen said. "You're not saying that Kane County has an exposure to that kind of a major threat to defense litigators coming in here. I think that we should probably clarify that we are not saying that we have that kind of danger and liability."
Childress replied that she absolutely agreed with Lauzen. The last thing the county needs right now is any sort of litigation, she said.
"I am not suggesting that this is a matter for some sort of litigation," Childress said. "I am not an expert in that. I don't handle such litigation. I quite honestly know nothing about it. What I am telling you is that we need to stay ahead of that danger."
County board members seemed to embrace Childress' concerns about fairness in the justice system as far as balancing the resources available to both the prosecution and public defense. But no one said they were ready to give Childress any more money yet. That discussion will continue as part of the 2017 budget debate.