Strained St. Clair County Public Defender’s office gets budget increase. Is it enough?
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
The St. Clair County Public Defender’s office has $200,000 more in its budget than it did about five months ago, when lawyers were leaving for better-paying jobs and caseloads got so high the chief public defender told the court they couldn’t effectively represent any more people.
Since then, Chief Public Defender Cathy MacElroy has used the new money to raise salaries to retain existing lawyers and fill vacancies. The office was fully-staffed as of Monday.
But MacElroy said she still worries about the possibility that bail reform creates more work for them in the future.
Provisions of the law known as the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today, or SAFE-T, Act was slated to replace cash bail at the beginning of the year with detention hearings to decide if a person charged with a crime should be detained in a county jail before trial.
The reform stalled late last year when a circuit court judge ruled it was unconstitutional and state officials appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which has not yet made a decision.
Public defenders represent people facing criminal charges when they can’t afford to hire a private attorney. Under the SAFE-T Act, they would automatically be appointed to defendants for the new detention hearings.
“This is a good start where we’re about to be at but it’s still not ideal,” MacElroy said last week. “... I expect the SAFE-T Act is likely going to pass in some capacity. I’m not sure what that’s going to look like, but I do expect changes to come. And it will definitely require more work.”
What $200k paid for
The St. Clair County Public Defender’s office has gone from five full-time lawyers in late November to eight full-time lawyers today. That total includes MacElroy, whose position has shifted from part-time to full-time.
MacElroy has been the chief public defender since 2019. Chief Circuit Judge Andrew Gleeson said the position has been part-time since at least the mid-80s, when he began his legal career.
Base salaries for full-time lawyers have increased from $48,500 to $60,000. The chief public defender’s salary has increased from about $36,000 to $175,000.
Full-time chief public defenders in counties of a certain size are required by law to be paid 90% of the state’s attorney’s salary. This year, St. Clair County State’s Attorney James Gomric’s salary is about $195,000.
The state reimburses counties for two-thirds of a full-time chief public defender’s salary, which covers about $110,000 of the St. Clair County Public Defender’s $200,000 budget increase. The rest of the money for the budget increase comes from the county’s general fund.
Chief public defender has raised alarm for years
MacElroy had been documenting the growing problem with caseloads for three years before she submitted motions in court on Nov. 29 to withdraw her office from new cases because it had too few lawyers.
In budget reports to Chairman Mark Kern and the St. Clair County Board since 2020, MacElroy wrote that lawyers in her office had larger caseloads than the American Bar Association recommends, and she cited potential consequences:
- The odds of “ineffective assistance” from lawyers increases, putting the county at risk of lawsuits from their clients.
- More serious cases move slower, which results in longer incarceration times at the St. Clair County Jail. It costs the county to house inmates. Overcrowding at the jail puts inmates and officers at risk of injury and puts the county at risk of more lawsuits.
- If the public defender’s office can’t handle the caseload, a judge has to appoint private attorneys to represent people, which would be a higher cost to the county.
The budget the county board originally approved for the public defender’s office going into 2023 was $739 more than it received in 2020, before COVID-19 pandemic budget cuts.
In an interview with the Belleville News-Democrat about the budget in December, Kern said lawyers in the public defender’s office get the same raises as every other department.
“It appears that lawyers elsewhere are starting to make more money so it was clear that with the additional duties of the SAFE-T Act, that additional dollars would be required in that office,” Kern said.
MacElroy said caseloads and a backlog from the pandemic’s pause on jury trials are starting to decrease with eight full-time lawyers now working, but the SAFE-T Act’s impact remains uncertain.
“That’s really just enough right now to try to hold at the current rate, but we’re concerned obviously that that’s still gonna create more work in the future,” she said.
More money may become available
Last year, state legislation created a grant program to pay for contracts with attorneys if public defenders need help keeping up with the SAFE-T Act’s new detention hearings.
State Sen. Doris Turner, D-Springfield, introduced legislation this year that would also affect the public defender’s office.
Senate Bill 115 would make a full-time chief public defender’s pay the same as the state’s attorney’s. It would also require the state to pay 100% of the chief public defender’s salary instead of two-thirds.
The bill is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday in the Senate appropriations committee.
Lexi Cortes is a reporter and editor with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.