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A Message From the Chief Justice


April 28, 2020

While preparing my remarks for this edition of Illinois Courts Connect, I took a moment to step back and ponder all that has transpired over the past few months. What struck me was how much the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has changed the lives of each of us. We now are living in a world that we could not have imagined just two months ago when I last wrote to you and provided updated information about the ISBA-sponsored Listening Tour that was to kick off in March. At that time, I was excited to share with you our vision of traveling across the State of Illinois to connect with judges, lawyers, and other stakeholders to learn about the operation of the court system in the 5 appellate districts and the 24 judicial circuits within the 102 counties that make up this Land of Lincoln. I had hoped to use this month’s newsletter to provide you with feedback regarding our first stops along the Listening Tour. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has put a halt to the Tour – at least temporarily. Be assured that we are planning on going forward with the Listening Tour as soon as it is safe to do so.

In the meantime, I want to thank everyone for your cooperation and the sacrifices you have made during these difficult times. By now you are aware of the steps the courts throughout the state have been taking to keep the public and ourselves safe while, at the same time, maintaining a free and open court where matters of immediate importance to our citizens may be addressed and resolved. These are our paramount responsibilities. I am proud of the way our court system is meeting the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. I thank all the judges, lawyers, stakeholders, court staff, and all those who, daily, have played a role in keeping our courts functioning throughout these challenging times. Thank you for your continued service to the people of this State.

Although the coronavirus pandemic has been foremost in our thoughts these days, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the March 2, 2020, passing of one of the most revered members of the Illinois Supreme Court and a personal hero of mine, Justice Charles E. Freeman. He was a history maker and a trailblazer. In 1990, he became the first African American justice on the Illinois Supreme Court and later, in 1997, became the first African American Supreme Court Chief Justice in Illinois. While garnering numerous accolades and prestigious awards for his professional work and accomplishments, he remained the consummate good and gentle man.

Besides his quiet and unassuming manner, perhaps most noteworthy was the high ethical standards to which he held himself. He believed in justice for all, regardless of race, color or creed. When he became chief justice, Justice Freeman reportedly commented that being African American would not influence his assessment of the law, stating, “I am an African American who now has become chief justice. I am not an African American chief justice.”

Members of the court who were privileged to have served alongside Justice Freeman will miss his insight and thoughtful judgment on the cases that came before us. The court – and, indeed, the state of Illinois – has lost a truly great man. May his soul be at rest with God. The Illinois Supreme Court will be holding a memorial service in Springfield to honor Justice Freeman and remember his many contributions on a future date. 

I would also like to take this opportunity to wish Justice Robert R. Thomas a very happy retirement. Justice Thomas stepped down from his position as a member of the Illinois Supreme Court on February 29, 2020. To fill the vacancy brought about by Justice Thomas’ retirement, the court appointed Michael J. Burke to serve on the court beginning March 1, 2020, and until the next general election in 2022. On behalf of the members of the court, I extend a warm welcome to Justice Michael J. Burke.

Finally, I would like to share some information with you about the judicial branch budget. On March 3, 2020, and March 4, 2020, I appeared before the State Senate and House to present the judicial branch’s Fiscal Year 2021 Appropriation Request. Here are some excerpts from my opening remarks:

“The judicial branch serves tens of thousands of court users across Illinois every single day, whether they are litigants, victims, witnesses, jurors, law enforcement officers, or other justice stakeholders. Every Illinois resident benefits from the services provided in the courthouses and other court facilities located in the 102 counties throughout our great state. The work of the judicial branch is supported by over 980 judicial officers and 600 staff persons who work in 24 circuit courts, five districts of the Appellate Court, and the Supreme Court. Together, we share a vision of ensuring that the judicial branch – the third branch of state government – is more efficient and effective and more readily accessible to all who may require our services.

For the first time in its history, the Illinois judicial branch, through its Judicial Conference, has developed a strategic plan – the Illinois Judicial Branch Strategic Agenda. The mission of the Illinois judicial branch, as identified in the Strategic Agenda, is to protect the rights and liberties of all by providing equal access to justice, resolving disputes, and upholding the rule of law pursuant to the powers and duties entrusted to us by the Illinois Constitution. Today, I will touch on a few of these initiatives and why they are crucial to the judicial branch.

In 2016, the Supreme Court initiated a statewide mandatory electronic filing, or e-filing, initiative for all the courts in Illinois.  Currently, civil cases are mandated to be electronically filed in all Illinois courts. As a result, approximately 600,000 documents are filed electronically each month. In addition, the Supreme Court has entered orders which give circuit courts the option of permitting e-filing in criminal cases.

The long-run benefits of e-filing are clear – it simplifies the process of filing and, in so doing, saves time and resources. Moreover, e-filing increases accessibility to the court system for the parties and the public, particularly the increasing numbers of self-represented litigants navigating our court system. The numbers are staggering. Data shows that now more than half of civil cases filed involve at least one party who is self-represented. E-filing is thus a critical part of improving access to justice.

In the short term though, the transition to electronic filing is expensive. The legislature has enacted a special fee and fund to help defray the costs of e-filing. However, that fee will provide for only about half of the total cost of the system. Sustaining the e-filing program is a critical initiative that will continue to require resources.

The technology burdens faced by the judicial branch do not end with e-filing. Our Administrative Office currently collects data statewide from numerous stakeholders and programs. This data, in turn, is used by state agencies and other stakeholders to compile statistics, to provide historical data and trends analysis, and to help the decision-making process. However, the current system for collecting data has become obsolete, resulting in data that is unreliable. As we move forward, the data collected by the judicial branch – and the speed and accuracy with which it can be accessed – will only continue to grow in importance. Fortunately, there is technology currently available that is capable of accurately capturing and compiling data from all 102 counties. The data acquired using this new technology would be made available to all branches of government which would increase transparency and reliability in real time. Acquisition of this technology is a priority for the judicial branch.

Another critical initiative of the judicial branch is probation.  At the outset, let me clarify the difference between parole and probation. Parole is an early release from prison after conviction and comes under the jurisdiction of – and is funded through – the Department of Corrections.  Probation, on the other hand, occurs prior to – and most often – instead of jail or prison time. Those on probation are supervised by probation officers in the community and are expected to follow certain conditions.

In Illinois, probation is the responsibility of the judicial branch.  Probation is funded through a combination of local funding by County Boards and State funding. By statute, the Supreme Court is responsible for reimbursing the salaries of probation officers in all of Illinois’ 102 counties – and the statute requires the Supreme Court to reimburse 100% of those salaries, which are set by local jurisdictions. 

The Fiscal Year 2020 General Revenue Funding increase enabled the judicial branch to meet this statutory reimbursement obligation for the first time in decades. Thank you. Prior to the 2020 budget increase, the lack of sufficient state funding caused many counties to delay hiring personnel for approved probation services positions or to eliminate the positions entirely.

The Fiscal Year 2020 funding level has made a significant impact on local jurisdictions and continues to improve public safety while having a direct impact on Criminal Justice Reform. The funding increase has allowed local jurisdictions to begin the process of filling those positions, thereby slowly chipping away at their overall number of vacancies. 

Specifically, 86 vacant probation positions have been filled and 148 new positions have been added across the state.  The majority of these new positions – 119 – are dedicated to enhancing pretrial services.  Pretrial services have, historically, been woefully underfunded but are essential to the criminal justice system.    

Having trained and qualified Probation Officers and the ability to place certain offenders on probation is important for many reasons.  First, probation is a far more effective use of taxpayer dollars for those offenders who commit non-violent, low level offenses.  Illinois taxpayers currently pay over $38,000 a year to house an adult offender within the Department of Corrections. Again, that is a cost the General Assembly funds through the DOC. But it costs only about $3,000 – $5,000 a year for that same individual to be supervised by a probation officer. This could be a savings for the State. Yet, if Probation Officers are not available, this possible savings cannot be realized. Moreover, having a sufficient number of Probation Officers is a societal win as well – probationers remain at home with their families, they can keep their jobs, go to school, pay taxes and contribute to the community and society. 

Those on probation also recidivate at a much lower rate than those in prison. What I mean by this is that those offenders who successfully complete probation are less likely to cycle in and out of the criminal justice system. This is especially true when probation has the funding to provide the treatment and services necessary to help an offender turn his or her life around and become a success story.

The cost differential is even more dramatic for juvenile offenders.  The cost to supervise a juvenile in the community – again, especially when probation has the money to provide programming and treatment services – is only about $5,000 - $8,000 per year. In contrast, housing the juvenile within the Department of Juvenile Justice costs at least $85,000 per year, and that cost continues to rise. 

The cost of maintaining a sufficient number of professionally trained Probation Officers is a critical part of the judicial branch appropriation. Probation Officers are essential to the function of the criminal judicial system.

There are a few other points to highlight.

Specialty courts such as Mental Health Court, Drug Court, DUI Court, and Veterans Courts, have proven benefits – they reduce recidivism and, by diverting offenders from the Department of Corrections, save resources. These courts all run under the auspices of the local county court systems but are supported by reimbursements through the judicial branch budget. A failure to adequately fund these programs will contribute to more people in prison, a higher recidivist rate, and greater societal costs.

The Supreme Court has also created a Judicial College to provide comprehensive and collaborative training to judges and judicial branch stakeholders. Judicial branch stakeholders include everyone who works within the judicial system – judges, circuit clerks, security officers, probation officers and the like. Training together is important to maintaining the quality of the justice system and making it responsive to the changing needs of all of us in Illinois, including the ever-increasing numbers of self-represented litigants.

In sum, our goal last year was to make certain that you, the legislature, understood that we simply would be unable to deliver equal justice if our budget remained flat for another year. You answered that request, and we thank you for responding with the funding.

This year, the message is sustainability.  Full funding of the judicial branch budget is critical to maintaining probation positions and improving a system that is essential to making any criminal justice reform meaningful and successful. Anything less risks a return to higher incarceration rates and higher recidivism, but – more to the point for today’s meeting – more burdens on the State treasury and a system that does not serve the people of Illinois as well as it should.

We all recognize the daunting fiscal challenges our state has faced over the past several years. It is my hope today, as we discuss the judicial branch’s budget request, that you will see the importance of fully funding the court system so that the judiciary can fulfill its constitutional duties to provide equal access to justice, provide prompt and fair adjudication of legal proceedings, and provide constitutional assurances of due process while preserving public safety. The Supreme Court’s requested funding level of $434.6 million for FY 2021 will provide the necessary resources to meet our obligations to Illinois, including our constitutional and statutory obligation of $141.7 million for probation reimbursements.”

In striving to increase transparency in government, I felt it was important that I share with you the remarks I presented at the budget appropriation hearings. From this snapshot view, I hope that you have gained a better understanding of judicial branch operations and the efforts the court makes to provide access to justice for all our citizens in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

Again, I thank everyone for your commitment to keeping the courts open and accessible during these times of unprecedented difficulty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please continue to take all necessary precautions to keep yourselves, your families, and the public we serve safe. We will get through this together.