Chicagoans Have The Right To a Free Attorney, Right Now: Judge Orders

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Chicago Residents – take note if you are arrested:  On Tuesday, Judge Timothy Evans of Cook County Chicago signed a document ordering that people held in police custody shall have access to an attorney at no charge.  The access should be granted immediately upon request.

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Far too often, the justice system seems to be available only to the affluent. In criminal matters, bail usually has to be paid. Then, someone must foot the bill to retain an attorney, which could cost thousands of dollars. Then, depending on how long the case lasts, the attorney must be paid for his or her time again. Attorney’s often charge even more money if the case ends up going to trial. Ultimately, the defendant may even end up having to pay court costs and fines. Often, the cost of attorneys forces individuals to make incriminating statements before they are even offered a court-appointed lawyer. Most importantly, this harsh reality sometimes leads to individuals taking plea deals, knowing that they are innocent, simply because they could not afford to keep fighting the case.

On March 14th, Judge Timothy Evan sought to rectify this glaring constitutional issue. The Judge signed an order which designates the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender to send one of its attorneys to the police station or designate a volunteer private attorney to attend in place of an assistant public defender immediately after a suspect is arrested. According to a recent study, it was found that the vast majority of those arrested in Chicago don’t receive legal representation until their bail hearing in court, often after they’ve already made incriminating statements to detectives. Similarly, for decades, indigent defendants had to wait until their first court appearance before an assistant public defender was appointed to represent them. This order aims to change this.

Upon first analyzing this situation, it would seem that this is already taken care of in the Sixth Amendment of the constitution. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to legal counsel at all significant stages of a criminal proceeding. This right is so important that there is an associated right given to people who are unable to pay for legal assistance to have counsel appointed and paid for by the government. The federal criminal justice system and all states have procedures for appointing counsel for indigent defendants. As most arrestees can attest, it’s almost impossible to speak with an attorney before they are charged and taken to bond court, unless they had private counsel.In fact, data gleaned from a public records request by the nonprofit First Defense Legal Aid showed that only 838 of the nearly 86,700 people arrested last year by Chicago police, were able to consult with an attorney at the police station. This is less than 1 percent of all people arrested.  Judge Evan’s order effectively changes this glitch in the system.

However, anyone who has seen any episode of the true crime reality show The First 48 knows that the success of such an order may ultimately depend on the cooperation of the police. Legal aid officials have reported that police have been reluctant to grant suspects phone calls or give attorneys access to suspects while they’re being questioned. Signaling a step in the right direction, a Chicago police spokesman said Tuesday the department has agreed to post signs with a phone number for “free legal services” in arrestee areas and outside interview rooms.

Chicago has been used as an example by politicians as a crime infested and corruption-filled city for years. The city has also been troubled by wrongful convictions, with more than 100 convictions reversed since 1989. This recent move by Judge Evans could help to change this. “I want to ensure that constitutional rights are protected from the earliest point of contact with the criminal justice system,” Evans said in a press statement released to the public yesterday. “The concept of ‘justice’ demands that we take this step to strengthen an individual’s rights and the public’s confidence in the system.”



In fact, criminal attorneys all around the city have already begun putting this order into action. First Defense Legal Aid Executive Director Eliza Solowiej on Tuesday called for a new influx of volunteer attorneys and law students licensed to work as lawyers for a legal clinic. Solowiej said providing early access to lawyers has been shown to reduce costs for the criminal justice system by spotlighting cases likely to fall apart later in court. She also hoped having public defenders involved at an earlier stage would result in more cases being disposed of quickly. “People who do not need to be incarcerated are freed sooner,” Solowiej told The Chicago Times. “That means we do not have to incur the costs as taxpayers.”

First Defense said it’s looking to bolster its ranks of volunteers to take four-hour shifts responding to calls for legal aid. Solowiej said the need is particularly great with juvenile suspects. “We are ready to protect children in police custody — that they know their rights and that they’re not alone with police and prosecutors,” she said. First Defense will work with the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice to track how many calls come in and what happens to those cases as they go through the criminal justice system.

First Defense Legal Aid and other leaders in Chicago’s legal community are calling all hands on deck. In partnership with the Public Defender, FDLA is recruiting, training and coordinating private attorneys and law students eligible for temporary licenses. Volunteer shifts are just 4 hours long, during which time the on-call volunteer may be called to respond to a police station, or in some cases hospitals, schools, or other places where people are held in Chicago police custody.

The attorney mobilization initiative, called the #Give72 campaign, is a call to action for attorneys and law students to volunteer 72 hours over the next year, while arrestees are otherwise without access to their Constitutional rights for their up-to 72 hours in police custody.


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