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Champaign Co. Public Defender says SAFE-T Act will have little effect on jail population

The Champaign County Courthouse in downtown Urbana.

URBANA — The new Champaign County Public Defender takes over an office with many challenges, but Elisabeth Pollock thinks she’s up to the task. 

The Urbana native spent the last decade in the U.S. Public Defender’s office before taking the oath for her new office on Monday. 

Listen to this story here. 

In a wide ranging conversation with Illinois Newsroom’s Brian Moline, Pollock discussed the effect of cash bail ending on the jail population in Champaign County, and how having half the county’s jail population housed in Kankakee poses challenges, but we started by discussing the staffing challenges in the public defender’s office. 

Below is a transcription of this conversation, lightly edited for clarity. 

Elisabeth Pollock: “There’s there’s been a lot of studies done by the American Bar Association and other bar associations about the severe understaffing of public defender offices, in addition to how underpaid we are on a per caseload capita. So, my hope is that I can make those positions more widely known so that we can procure some additional applicants to fill those open positions.

We have two felony courtrooms, which should conceivably have four attorneys each, and one of them has one lawyer, and the other has two. So, we have three people covering what what should be eight case loads. So the problem is going to be what I think is kind of persistent throughout the state of Illinois and other areas of the country, which is that there’s just not a lot of people who want to apply for those open positions. So we’re going to advertise as far and wide as we possibly can, I will hopefully be able to post nationally, as opposed to just locally, to see if we can acquire some qualified applicants who can laterally transfer into the office and be prepared to handle those case loads.

I’m also going to be in contact with various law schools across the state, both Illinois and then I’ll do Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, anywhere that’s kind of close geographically to see if we can procure some new energetic faces to come in and, you know, start training with us. So it’s just going to take some effort to try to make these vacancies well known so that we can get some good applicants in the door.”

Brian Moline: “As far as longer term challenges, you’ve talked about how the public defender’s office is funded at the county level, as opposed to the state level. What kind of changes would you like to see in the funding model that could really make the public defender’s office more sustainable?”

EP: “Well, I’d like to see public defender offices receive receive state funding through either statutory funding or to establish additional funds to sort of supplement what the county is able to do. I haven’t had the chance yet to explore potential grant options. I know that’s something that I’ll be looking into to try to see if there’s additional funding available that’s outside of the county model.

I believe Illinois is fairly unique in that funding model, a lot of other public defender agencies are funded by the state. I think that is something that would have to be brought to the legislature’s attention, it would be a huge paradigm shift to switch the funding models. And I’m not sure what the likelihood or of that could be, but it’s something to look into. But that’s a more long term project to do kind of a study comparing how Illinois funds, their public defender offices versus other states.

But ultimately, you know, we just need a larger source of funds. The county is is already strapped for cash for a variety of things. They they cover all these different agencies, and they don’t really have the ability to increase taxes, which would be a revenue source to the extent that we probably need it. So some kind of either supplemental state funding or switching the funding model entirely could be desirable in the long run. I’m not sure what the feasibility is, but it’s something that we’ll be looking into.”

BM: “One thing that your predecessor in the public defender’s office did earlier this year was request not to have any more murder trials assigned, simply because they take so much time and so much resources in an already strapped office. Is that something you’re going to continue, at least for the time being?”

EP: “For the moment? Yes, because as I said, we’ve got three felony attorneys handling what should be eight people’s case loads. So I agree with my predecessor that we don’t have the ability at this moment in time to take additional felonies of that severity and of that magnitude. It’s something that I hope as we accrue additional staff that we can change that sometime within the next six months, because what happens when the public defender office can’t take the case is that the court then is responsible for finding private attorneys to come in on an hourly basis to cover those cases. And that is an additional expenditure that the county has to make.

So I would like to see, you know, the fiscal year ’23 budget is completed already. There will be no major changes to that budget at this time. But for the fiscal year ’24 budgets, I’m going to be exploring the possibility of increasing our funding line so that the court doesn’t have to pay for that representation, and that we can use that additional funding to hire skilled attorneys who can come in with an already existing ability to handle those types of cases.”

BM: “And speaking of your predecessor, Janie Miller-Jones, I know you can’t speak much to any personnel issues, but I did just want to ask if she is still an attorney with your office.”

EP: “Janie is an absolutely excellent trial attorney. She has a skill set that I’m not sure we could duplicate anywhere else. I offered her a position and she accepted it. So yeah, she is still with the office.”

BM: “One of the other challenges right now is that because of a lack of space in the Champaign County satellite jail after the closure of the downtown jail earlier this year, Champaign County currently has inmates housed in Macon County and Kankakee County. How many inmates right now does your office work with who are housed in those remote locations, and what kind of challenges does that pose for you?”

EP: “So, my understanding after meeting with the sheriff is that we have a small number of inmates housed at Macon County, under 15. We have about half of the rest of our inmates housed at Kankakee, which I believe the latest census number was around 180 individuals. So, we have about half the people in the satellite jail and the rest of them are at Kankakee county jail. That presents a series of challenges because our attorneys are so strapped for time.

Even with clients who are being housed at the satellite jail, it’s hard to find the time even to drive over to Lierman and visit with them. Having those clients in Kankakee, which is about an hour and a half north of us means that there is no physical way that our attorneys can visit face to face with their clients unless they work on Saturdays and Sundays. And that has presented some very serious challenges not only with the inability to get there in person, but also with the inability to speak with those inmates because the phone system that is set up through Kankakee, in order to request a call with your client, you cannot just call the jail and say, ‘Hey, can I please talk to you know, defendant X,’ you have to email their scheduler and you have to schedule an attorney call, which oftentimes can’t be accomplished within 48 hours.

So, it has severely increased our lack of ability to speak with the clients to meet with the clients. It means that when there’s an offer on the table, we can’t communicate it to them. Most things are being done on a 48 to 72 hour delay in terms of getting our clients information, and they simply don’t have the time to do it. So it is a very serious situation that impedes our ability to meet with and contact our clients. I don’t know that there is a solution on the horizon.

I’m aware that there have been some capital improvements scheduled for the satellite jail, there is going to be a small expansion of that facility. But even with the expansion, it’s not going to be enough to house everybody who is currently in custody. So the likelihood the situation is going to continue is I would say pretty likely.”

BM: “I wanted to ask you what effect some of the changes to pretrial detention in the state might have on on that situation. There were just changes to that law (SAFE-T Act) made last week in Springfield, so I’m sure that that there’s still a lot of discussion going on at the county level on how to implement that and what kind of effects it might have. But what’s your understanding at this point as to how that legislation could affect the the jail population in Champaign County?”

EP: “Obviously, we’re gonna have to see how it plays out. But from what I see, I don’t anticipate a large change in the jail population based on those statutes. The statute does provide for detention for most classes of serious felonies. So for the people that have the very high cash bonds, who cannot make those cash bonds, they’re still going to be held in custody based on my reading of the statute. So it really mostly affects Class B, Class C, misdemeanors and low level felonies. But frankly, most of those people are already able to meet the bond requirements. So I’ll have to wait and see how it plays out. But I’m not certain that it’s going to result in a large amount of changes as to who is detained and who is released.”

BM: “And before I let you go, I’m just curious if you could tell us a little bit about kind of the the day to day working relationship that your office has with the State’s Attorney’s Office, with the circuit judges in in the county. Just how does that how does that work on a day-to-day basis?”

EP: “That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure I can answer it fully yet, since I’ve been here for less than 24 hours. Sure, I can tell you that everybody that I’ve talked to so far has been supportive, the judges are supportive.

Everybody has the same interest here. We need a public defender’s office that is robust, we need a public defender’s office that is well funded. And we need a public defender’s office with attorneys who are capable of zealously representing those clients because that is our constitutional obligation. And everybody knows that, not just us, but the judges and the State’s Attorney’s Office as well.

I can tell you that I have met with Julia Rietz, I plan on meeting with her regularly in the future to improve office operations to see if we can streamline the exchange of information between our offices in terms of discovery exchange, perhaps a cloud server where we can share information back and forth, not in paper form.

So everybody that I’ve talked to so far has been very supportive. And like I said, there is a global interest in making sure that this office functions and functions well. So I have been I have received support from all of those actors that you mentioned, and I hope to continue to receive it in the future.”

Picture of Brian Moline

Brian Moline

Brian Moline is the Managing Editor of Illinois Newsroom and host of Morning Edition for Illinois Public Media/WILL. He's been with WILL since 2015, after a long stint at WDWS-AM in Champaign where he covered both news and sports for more than a decade. If you have story or interview ideas, you can reach Brian at bmoline@illinois.edu.

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