This is a picture worth a thousand curse words.
It's the image of the Cook County Circuit Court's writ of habeas corpus in a case involving alleged armed robber Ladaris Butler, 21, and it reveals, at a glance, just how archaic and sclerotic our local criminal justice system has become.
A writ of habeas corpus is a document in which a judge orders a jailer — sometimes it's a prison warden — to produce a defendant on a certain date.
In this instance, underneath all the stamps, scribbles, arrows and X's added later, it's an order by Cook County Judge Gloria Chevere that Butler be brought from the county jail at 26th Street and California Avenue roughly 17 miles south to the branch court at 727 E. 111th St. on the morning of April 23, 2012.
Butler had been locked up since Nov. 24, 2011, when he was charged with armed robbery after he and another man allegedly held up three victims on the 6700 block of South Peoria Street and relieved them of a cellphone and cash.
But this court appearance was only indirectly about that. You see, at the time of his arrest, Butler was on probation after he'd pleaded guilty in September 2011 to aggravated assault against a police officer and possession of marijuana, and the document pictured here deals with the related probation-violation proceeding.
The document has gone back and forth to court with Butler 18 times by the count of Cara Smith, chief of policy and communications for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, whose office brought it to my attention and interpreted it for me.
Each time, evidently, nothing happened in court except that the old date on the writ was crossed out and a new date was entered on whatever blank space remained on the page, sometimes with initials or asterisks or shorthand ("OOC" means "order of the court"). Lately, to help out the poor jail staffers tasked with deciphering what looks like a child's art project, dates have been marked with a yellow highlighting pen and emphasized with arrows.
Smith said that this writ from hell isn't typical. It's a particularly bizarre example of what happens when you have a system that's stuck in the 20th century because vintage computer systems at either end can't talk to one another.
If busy jail staffers overlook or misunderstand the most recent hen scratch — here, in the upper right quadrant, the note that Butler's next court date on the probation violation is Wednesday — then trials can be further delayed or, as we've seen, prisoners can be mistakenly released.
"A paper-based criminal justice system inhibits effective communication, leads to errors, jeopardizes public safety and costs the citizens," Dart wrote in a recent letter to the County Board and other top officials in which he called for immediate electronic upgrades and attached Butler's writ as Exhibit A. "We can no longer tolerate this antiquated and inefficient system."
Thursday, I asked Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle for her reaction to this image. "There is no doubt that the elimination of the paper-driven process will lead to enhanced public safety," she responded in a statement. "We are collectively faced with the problems related to inconsistent data collection, outdated applications to hold that data, and the failure of most of those systems to communicate with one another."
But even if Butler's odyssey were neatly entered on a legible, Web-based spreadsheet program, it would still constitute evidence of dismaying inefficiency — the costly shuttling of prisoners back and forth for meaningless status hearings and the preposterous delays in the dispensation of routine justice.
One look at this 81/2-by-11-inch mess and you understand why Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride intervened last month to call for a summit including such leading county officials as Dart, Preckwinkle and Chief Judge Timothy Evans as well as outside experts. Their charge: to audit and streamline how Cook County deals with crime and punishment.
In the room when they meet ought to be a poster-size blow-up of Ladaris Butler's writ, and above it a sign that reads "No more!"
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