Grossly understaffed Cook County prosecutor’s office assigns law students to courtrooms, sets low hiring requirements

There are growing indications that the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (CCSAO) is struggling to fill vacancies, as more than 20% off its employees have resigned since July 2021.

CCSAO is so short-staffed that supervisors are assigning prospective attorneys who have not yet passed the bar to handle duties typically conducted by assistant state’s attorneys—like presenting allegations during bail hearings at Chicago’s criminal courthouse.

And the office is trying to hire an attorney who will be responsible for convincing judges to resentence incarcerated felons under a new Illinois law. But the job posting has raised eyebrows among some experienced prosecutors.

Earlier this year, two Cook County judges rejected efforts by veteran prosecutors who sought the early release of a convicted home invader and a serial burglar. Both judges questioned the new law’s constitutionality, wondered if they even had the authority to do what prosecutors were asking, and a variety of other concerns.

Even though its veteran lawyers could not break through a wall of judicial resistance, a job posting seeking people to handle the same duties in the future requires only two years of legal experience. A background in criminal law, administrative hearings, or litigation is “Preferred, not Required,” the posting says—emphasis theirs.

‘They’re disgusted’

In a pair of reports Wednesday, Fox and NBC Chicago detailed ongoing struggles to fill job vacancies at the state’s attorney’s office.

Fox reported that four prosecutors assigned to approve felony charges for cases brought in by police have quit in the past two weeks. The outlet said three of them quit on the same day.

NBC reported that a courthouse in suburban Bridgeview “should have two Assistant State’s Attorneys for each of the ten courtrooms, but recently there have been only three Assistant State’s Attorneys to cover six or even seven of the courtrooms.”

“We asked for feedback, ‘tell us what you hear, what you feel’ and people told us there are some who are not aligned with the mission and vision of the office,” Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx told NBC.

Foxx has also consistently blamed the COVID pandemic for her office’s wave of resignations.

Kim Foxx at the White House on June 30, 2022 | @SAKimFoxx

But a former high-ranking office member, Dan Kirk, had a different thought.

“I hear the feedback from hundreds of people in the office. They’re disgusted, and they can’t take it anymore,” Kirk told NBC. “They’re leaving in droves because they just don’t want to work for this State’s Attorney anymore.”

In May, Foxx held an all-hands video conference in which she spoke, mostly, about staffing challenges. She asked CCSAO’s employees to send in any questions they had. According to her office’s response to a CWBChicago Freedom of Information Act request, only two of the 1,100 employees asked a question.

One person wanted to know if they could continue to work from home. The other wondered, “What does it look like to hire more support staff?”

Foxx’s office initially refused to provide the all-staff video, questions, and the office’s response to those questions as we requested via FOIA. It complied with state law after we asked the state attorney general’s office to review CCSAO’s failure to hand over the requested materials.

‘Bar takers’

Foxx’s office has tried to stem losses by recently hiring more than 40 prospective attorneys who have not yet passed the state bar exam, according to a source.

Sometimes called “711’s” after state supreme court rule 711, which allows for temporary licensure of law students and graduates, bar takers have historically been given administrative duties in the office, the source said.

Not anymore.

Bar takers, who can only work under the direct supervision of a licensed attorney, have recently been presenting charges at misdemeanor bail hearings at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse at 26th and California.

They have also been sent to shore up CCSAO’s traffic division. There, the staffing situation is so dire that attorneys assigned to handle appellate law were recently asked to take on traffic matters, according to an email provided to CWBChicago.

“The situation in their unit is critical, and anything we can do to help our partners will be greatly appreciated,” the appeals attorneys were told.

Conviction Integrity Unit

A current CCSAO job listing seeks an assistant state’s attorney (ASA) for its resentencing efforts. The successful candidate’s “primary responsibility … is the effective management of the work of the Resentencing Initiative,” the listing says.

The person will be responsible for selecting inmates who should be considered for resentencing, reviewing their backgrounds, securing subpoenas, drafting memos and recommendations, filing motions, and representing the CCSAO in all court proceedings.

While the successful candidate must have two years of experience as an Illinois attorney, that need not be in criminal law or litigation. However, they must have a driver’s license.

If the CCSAO’s failure to move two judges to act on its initial efforts this spring is any indication, the new hire will be arguing state constitutional law before judges who, in some cases, may have been on the bench since they were children.

A former Cook County ASA who spoke with CWBChicago questioned how an attorney with no criminal experience would have the ability to determine if an inmate’s sentence is appropriate or if resentencing would, as CCSAO purportedly desires, “further the interest of justice.”

The attorney suspects that Foxx’s office intentionally sets the qualification bar low.

“Anyone experienced would push back on their plans,” the veteran attorney said.

A CCSAO spokesperson did not reply to an inquiry about the job posting.

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About CWBChicago 6700 Articles
CWBChicago was created in 2013 by five residents of Wrigleyville and Boystown who had grown disheartened with inaccurate information that was being provided at local Community Policing (CAPS) meetings. Our coverage area has expanded since then to cover Lincoln Park, River North, The Loop, Uptown, and other North Side Areas. But our mission remains unchanged: To provide original public safety reporting with better context and greater detail than mainstream media outlets. Our editorial email address is news@cwbchicago.com