New Bill Aims to Create Statewide Public Defender Office in Illinois


Illinois lawmakers are attempting to overhaul the state’s public defense structure by proposing the establishment of a statewide system under HB5842 — the Funded Advocacy and Independent Representation (FAIR) Act. This move is aimed at addressing the longstanding issues of inequity and inefficiency that have plagued the current county-based system.

Illinois is one of seven states that do not have a statewide public defender body.

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On top of creating a unified office, the FAIR Act would give counties access to more attorneys, create caseload limits and implement training standards among other support. It builds on recent reforms like the SAFE-T Act, which includes the elimination of cash bail.

Stephanie Kollmann, policy director at Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center, said it’s likely going to be quite costly for the state to implement new standards for public defense.

“Illinois is short about 900 public defense attorneys, and even more than that in terms of investigators and support staff,” Kollmann said.

The state budget allocates $10 million annually for public defense, but some think that number needs to be raised to the hundreds of millions.

“No constitutional right should have a price tag,” Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. said. “Right now, public defender services are delivered at the county level and because there are 102 different counties in the state, there are 102 different approaches for public defense.”

Cook County has a county board and county board president, but that’s not the same for other, primarily rural, counties. Currently, 60% of Illinois counties have no office of public defense and instead hire private attorneys on a part-time basis.

Under state statute, it’s optional for counties in Illinois with populations under 35,000 to set up an office of public defense. However, that statute was created 14 years prior to the modern right to state-provided counsel.

“The vast majority of funding comes from the counties,” Mitchell said, “and there needs to be more state support. We believe that the FAIR Act gives us a great platform to start to have those conversations about what’s needed for folks to have their constitutional rights represented.”


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