Lately, our headlines and soundbites have amplified the crime, budget crises, social disparities and broken criminal system that have been pushed to center stage, fueled by police misconduct.
As another life is taken through a senseless homicide or when the scrutiny of political misappropriation is under the spotlight, our legal system is often at the center of defining the final outcome.
It is before the scales of justice that thousands await their fate when they find themselves inside the third largest court system in the country and the largest in the Midwest.
The Cook County courts are as intricate as understanding Chinese checkers if you’re not very familiar with the process.
The typical Chicagoan has probably had some type of minor introduction to the system through an appearance in traffic court, and as our laws have gradually changed, unfortunately, probably more have had the discomfort of having far more familiarity with the system because of child support, divorce and drug court issues.
With various measures already in place to assist those who find the court system intimidating at times yet reassuring when needed, Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans is hoping to bring still more transparency and education to this process of familiarization.
As the presiding Chief Judge of over 400 judges in the Cook County Circuit Court, he has the heavy responsibility of maintaining order throughout the judicial system.
As the first African-American Chief Judge of the Circuit Court, Evans has deep political roots. He was the alderman of the 4th Ward for almost 20 years and the late Mayor Harold Washington’s floor leader and Chicago City Council Finance Chair during his administration.
His bid to fill Washington’s post after his death was defeated by Eugene Sawyer and Evans later lost during a special election against Richard M. Daley, running as an independent candidate. In 1991, his reign as 4th Ward Alderman ended when Toni Preckwinkle won that city council seat.
Never one to back down, a year later, the John Marshall Law School graduate was sworn in as the first Black chief judicial officer in a court system that had been criticized with a long history of non-transparency before his takeover.
Evans understands the distrust and misinformation that people feel about the court system, primarily people of color. He said, “They don’t know that we protect their constitutional rights. All of the rights that they cherish are protected by the court system. Free speech, practice of religion – all of those things they studied back in high school or college – we actually protect.
“In conjunction with the latest round of considerations involving police brutality or crimes in our neighborhood, so-called ‘Black-on-Black’ crimes, our court system ultimately deals with all of that as well.”
Bonding Out Laquan’s Killer
The Cook County Circuit Court’s Central bond court is located at 26th and California, where close to 10,000 jail inmates are also housed.
Approximately 89 percent of inmates are African-American and Hispanic detainees either waiting on bond, unable to make bond for non-violent crimes, mentally disabled, awaiting trial, or somehow in transition.
Many have criticized the bond that the Cook County Circuit Court set for White Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke after he was charged with first-degree murder for killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
On November 30, 2015, at his courtroom bench in the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Cook County Judge Donald Panarese Jr. watched the police dashcam videotape of Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times, mostly while the Black teen lay on the ground.
Afterward, Panarese set Van Dyke’s bail at $1.5 million, requiring a 10 percent down payment of $150,000, which the police officer’s father paid with a cashier’s check, allowing his son to walk free from Cook County Jail where he had been detained for the previous six nights after previously having been denied bail.
Although Evans says it was a hard pill for him to see the video, he made it clear about the role the courts play in such cases, noting that the court is not the prosecution or the defense.
“Some people have gotten the impression that the bond process ought to reflect whether they believe someone is guilty or innocent. That’s not the purpose for bond at all,” Evans said.
“The bond process is in place to support the proposition that someone is considered innocent no matter whether they are police officers, whether they’re citizens, whether they’re immigrants – whatever the arrestee’s position in life happens to be, he or she is still presumed innocent.
“At the same time that we presume that they’re innocent, we have to protect the public while the case is pending.”
But, Evans added, “I can point out that the court’s commitment to justice is what happened in this case. You may recall that it was the judiciary that ordered the video to be released in the first place so that the public could see it.”
Working To Make Bail Fairer
During the hotly contested Cook County State’s Attorney election, one of the main concerns has been the heightened number of Black and Latino inmates in the jail system.
High bail bonds are often put in place for non-violent offenders, which leads to the indefinite detainment of people on simple misdemeanor charges and forces some to lose their jobs while waiting trial.
Chief Judge Evans, in collaboration with other branches, has been working with the Arnold Foundation to bring down these numbers.
“We have a system in place now that is designed to rely on science,” he says. “It’s data driven. It’s not a hunch. In the past, as the arrestee goes before a judge, the prosecution might say, ‘Judge do not release this particular person; this person has a felony in his background.’
“The defense says, ‘Judge this person is perfectly innocent of the current charge and has a great background in the past.’ Our judge would ordinarily be in a position where he has to decide on a split second whom to believe.
“But now,” Evans continued, “We have a system in place where the judge can rely on an independent person in the court and that independent person is a probation officer whose assignment is to offer pretrial assistance.”
Evans said that person can provide objective independent information to the judge and then the judge can be guided by objective criteria – not relying on one biased side or the other.
The judge takes into consideration whatever the prosecution said, whatever the defense said, and also what the pretrial officer recommends. “And we have the Illinois Compiled Statutes to consider in statutory matters. The judge also uses this new public assessment tool, which we are leading the pack on. What it does is to rely on data to predict what somebody is likely to do.”
Evans is confident that this new way of analyzing defendants charged with lesser crimes and those who have abused their freedom with a criminal history, will help them all get a fair balance. He said that other groups that have interaction with the courts – the Clerk’s office, the Sheriff’s office and certain other branches – have been trained in it.
This new implementation is currently only being utilized at the Central Bond courts at 26th and California, but over time it will be used at the other Circuit Courts, including the Second District in Skokie, the Third District in Rolling Meadows, and the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Districts.
The training started in January 2015, ran through June 30, 2015, and the program was implemented last July. Both the State’s Attorney’s Office and Public Defenders have had access to the new tool at the same time as Circuit Court judges.
Trying To Correct “Juvvy”
The Cook County judges reside over various courts – traffic, child support, domestic abuse, divorce, prostitution, drug addiction, child custody and one of the most disconcerting, juvenile court.
Judge Evans recently appointed a new Executive Director of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JDC), Leonard Dixon, who had success turning around the correctional programs in the Wayne County Juvenile Detention Facility.
The JDC has faced past criticism for managing an environment that bred dangerous conditions for its young inmates. In recent years, improvements to the facility that houses 291 juvenile detainees have been made under the watchful eye of Chief Judge Evans as he interacts more with them.
“Cook County was the first in the nation to separate juveniles from adults,” Evans says. “We recognize within the system that juveniles are still in a development process. They’re not irretrievable; they are ‘sensation seeking’ – without the maturity to control the sensation.
“They don’t think about the consequences of what they do and they’re more geared on the ‘now,’ so the delinquency might occur.”
Evans says he continues to see the same song played over and over again. With the juvenile courts, the judge takes a more hands-on approach when ruling.
He said, “We can use that flexibility to keep some of the young people who might otherwise have been prosecuted in an adult court in the juvenile court system. When a judge decides to put an individual in the JDC, usually that judge had not only had a chance to talk to the juvenile, but also we have a clinic procedure.”
Often, doctors and medical professionals from Northwestern Hospital are brought in to evaluate young inmates to determine if there are mental health problems and seek the necessary treatment to work through preventive measures that can keep them out of detainment.
The JDC has 47 programs in place to assist detainees that have a chance to continue their high school studies and eventually earn their GED. Unfortunately, the detention center is also a holding facility for those awaiting trial dates for violent crimes and will eventually be tried as an adult.
Evans believes there is hope for the young people who still have a chance to turn their lives around and during their time at CCJTDC, young people are trained on how to paint and perform culinary skills to enter the workforce once they are released.
“We also teach them about how to deal with the gang situations that are in the neighborhoods,” Evans says. “We teach them how to resolve their issues without resorting to a physical way of dealing with it.
“I know if mother and dad had been home, maybe mother and dad would’ve taught them these ways, but we can’t depend on that. Many times, the parents are involved in a drug situation themselves.”
Acknowledging Judicial Prejudices
Evans recognizes there is a disproportionate amount of Black and Brown youth in the juvenile and adult correctional systems and he believes that part of curtailing this high number is adequately equipping judges with the right sensitivity training and resources.
“Unfortunately, we’ve not eliminated race from considerations in the system of justice,” he admits, “but we train our judges in the decisions they make. We don’t want them to pretend that they have no biases. We assume that everyone has some kind of biases.
“But you recognize whatever biases you may have and you take an oath to set that aside when you make a decision. We want to see that permeate throughout the system.”
Evans doesn’t turn a blind eye to why this continues to be a problem – long before he entered this seat. “Right now, there are many theories of why there are more African Americans arrested than other groups,” he muses.
“Some might say they’re being arrested for access to drugs. But it’s conceded by societies that have looked at this that African Americans are no more engaged in drug conduct than anybody else. Nevertheless, they are arrested more than other people.”
Migration To Chicago
A native of Hot Springs, Arkansas, Evans arrived in Chicago with his family at the end of the Great Migration. His parents thought it was the best decision to relocate because of then-Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus’ stance on integrating Little Rock’s public schools.
After the historic Little Rock Central High School integration, Faubus forced schools to close in Little Rock, shifting students to attend school in Evan’s hometown – then the governor proceeded to close schools there as well.
Evans finished his remaining school years at Chicago’s Hirsch High School, then he went on to attend Illinois State University in Champaign, Illinois. He never looked back and was inspired by great Black attorneys such as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and fellow Arkansas native Glenn T. Johnson, former President of the Cook County Bar Association and the second African American to serve on the Illinois Appellate Court.
“Those were the people who were mentors for me,” Evans said. “They took the time to say, ‘Black people can do it; all you need is an opportunity.’ They opened the doors of opportunity for me.
“Now, that I’m in this position, I can open the doors of opportunities for others. Yes, from the African-American community, but for any community that feels oppressed, I can open that door and let them see how the justice system works.”