Will County court officials are seeking money in next year’s budget for new positions as they soon will move into a new courthouse and tackle a case backlog brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Representatives from the offices of the circuit clerk, state’s attorney and public defender spoke with members of the Will County Executive Committee last week about their additional staffing needs.
Richard Schoenstedt, chief judge of the 12th Judicial Circuit, told committee members the larger courthouse includes two additional courtrooms for criminal cases. As a result, the three entities require more staffing requests in the county’s 2021 budget, he said.
Mary Tatroe, the chief of the civil division in the state’s attorney’s office, said the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected the work typically done in the county court.
“We aren’t doing as much work during COVID-19,” Tatroe said. “A lot of those cases, at least on the judicial side, most of the cases are getting sent over to some later date.”
She said that once the pandemic is over, there will be “an awful lot” of cases for the county court system to get through. Will County Assistant State’s Attorney Christopher Koch told the committee that during the first few months of the pandemic, the county saw about an 80% reduction in disposed cases because it was not safe to continue normal operations.
Tatroe stressed the urgent need to address the backlog and “get justice to these defendants as expeditiously as we possibly can.” She also warned board members that if the cases aren’t addressed soon, the county might see lawsuits over a lack of due process.
She asked the board for about $775,000 in new money, mostly for salaries and benefits for seven new assistant state’s attorney positions, as well as promotional expenses and new equipment.
Jaya Varghese, the Will County Public Defender’s felony division chief, said her office needs about $434,000 in additional money for salaries and benefits for five new positions and for promotions of existing staff.
She told board members that the public defender’s office typically handles about 55% of all cases that come through the Will County Courthouse. That number tends to increase significantly during times of “economic hardships,” as more people are unable to pay for a private attorney to represent them, she said.
“In light of our clients ... their right to come to court being delayed, we know that our clients are very much interested in getting back to court, having their cases addressed, their date of justice,” Varghese said.
Will County Circuit Clerk Andrea Lynn Chasteen said her office is asking for five new positions for misdemeanor and criminal courts. She told board members that the new positions would require an additional $286,000 for salaries and benefits in next year’s budget.
While Chasteen said her office has continued to work throughout the pandemic, she echoed the sentiments of other officials, stressing there will be a backlog of cases to work through.
“We have a lot of people who are sitting in jail who ... need their day in court,” she said. “They have that right.”
Minority Leader Mike Fricilone, R-Homer Glen, suggested that the county could cover equipment expenses with federal money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
County officials are working to finalize a 2021 budget for board members to vote on later this year, even as revenues have taken a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.