CHICAGO — Back in March, a high-ranking Cook County prosecutor sent an email that by her own admission was “desperate.”
A jury trial was scheduled to start soon in traffic court. But there weren’t enough staffers to handle both the trial and the regular traffic cases at the same time. So the deputy chief of the Criminal Prosecutions Bureau sent out a call for volunteers: Could any prosecutors come help with the grunt work for a week?
“I would not be asking this if it wasn’t such a desperate situation,” she wrote.
A few months later, on a Monday morning in July, a murder trial was scheduled to finally start after seven years of pretrial delays. But, the judge announced from the bench, the lead prosecutor on the case had recently resigned. Another assistant state’s attorney had to take over and start from scratch, so the trial would be delayed almost another three months at least.
The Cook County state’s attorney’s office has seen significant attrition and turnover in the COVID-19 era, leaving courtrooms understaffed at the same time prosecutors dealt with a case backlog and a series of violent summers.
“We’re so short of attorneys, there’s twice as much work with no help,” one longtime prosecutor not authorized to speak publicly told the Chicago Tribune. “And really, you’re setting people up for failure. Anything can blow up in your face. The expectations are not manageable.”
State’s Attorney Kim Foxx told officials at a county board committee hearing last week that 235 people including attorneys had resigned from her office just since July of last year. The year before the pandemic began, that figure was 130.
The churn in the office since COVID-19 took hold has been enormous, office sources said. Roughly one-third of assistant state’s attorney, or ASA, spots have been vacated and refilled from January 2020 to June of this year, according to official figures. In approximately that same time period the office made 280 legal hires, but even with that triple-digit number, staffing is still not quite back up to its pre-pandemic level of 770 ASAs.
The attrition has been apparent up and down the chain of command, the sources said, with some newer attorneys leaving after very short periods with the office as well as some prominent departures at senior levels. Meanwhile, morale for many remaining staffers has cratered, during a period for the office that has been undeniably turbulent.
“I am not dismissing any of the very real concerns and stressors that my assistants are feeling right now,” Foxx told the Tribune. “It’s real. I am trying as best I can with the resources that I have to address that. The reality is, this pandemic has been extraordinarily difficult in maintaining staffing in an already stressed environment, which has an impact on morale. ... I have applauded the fact that (ASAs) have been working through this backlog, but that requires a lot of work. The success of getting through the backlog comes at a price.”
Foxx said her office is “working exceptionally hard to bring in new people.” Just shy of 50 newcomers are slated to begin with the office next month as “bar-takers” whose permanent hiring as ASAs is contingent on their passing the bar exam. Their presence on the lower rungs of the office should allow more experienced ASAs to fill in gaps farther up the chain, Foxx said.
Foxx’s office noted that the “great resignation” has affected workplaces all over the country. Prosecutors’ offices in New York and Baltimore have recently seen an exodus of staff, according to news reports in those cities. Closer to home, the city of Chicago’s Law Department has recently seen significant attrition, creating a bottleneck in police firing cases, according to WBEZ-91.5 FM. And Sheriff Tom Dart said Tuesday that his office’s retention numbers are “stark,” with 200 vacancies for correctional officers alone.
Meanwhile, the Cook County public defender’s office has seen a much smaller decline, and significantly less turnover, according to numbers released by the office. In February 2020 the office had 420 rank-and-file assistant public defenders; as of this month there are 416. And the office has hired 40 new attorneys since the beginning of 2020, indicating significantly less turnover than their counterparts in the state’s attorney’s office.
However, at last week’s budget hearing, Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. told committee members the office has about 109 vacant positions, and they intend to have 60% of those filled by the end of the fiscal year.
The Tribune interviewed several longtime prosecutors who wished to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak to the press. When asked about staffing problems, they used words like “hemorrhaging,” “unheard of” and “dumpster fire.”
The office has been conducting exit interviews with recent departures, Foxx said, in an effort to determine why people are leaving.
Of the 31 people who sat for a voluntary exit interview from September to November 2020 and July 2021 to April 2022, about 60% had been with the office for just one to five years. Of those who disclosed that they were leaving for a new position, about half were going to the private sector.
The reasons for departure often split along demographic lines, Foxx said, with Black women sometimes saying they “don’t feel like they were adapted into the culture” of the office, Foxx said. And retaining Black men has been a long-standing problem that the office is trying to understand more fully, Foxx said.
“What I can tell you unequivocally is we are working on making sure that the culture in our office is inclusive, because that is a persistent theme that I am hearing,” she said.
Some staffers who spoke to the Tribune also said they felt a lack of support from the downtown executive-level staff during the chaotic COVID-19 era. Others pointed to continued resentment over the Jussie Smollett case and the way the bosses handled the public uproar over a bond proffer related to the police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo last year.
And some sources said that the unexpected resignation of Natosha Toller, the widely respected head of the Criminal Prosecutions Bureau, was something of a tipping point for morale.
Sometimes a departure is simply about salary, Foxx said — an attorney can potentially make much more money with a lighter caseload as a private attorney. Law firms have ramped up their efforts to recruit ASAs recently, multiple sources told the Tribune.
A felony courtroom is considered fully staffed with three prosecutors: so-called first-chair, second-chair and third-chair attorneys. In September, two felony courtrooms at the Leighton Criminal Court Building instead had two prosecutors. By April, that number had grown to six courtrooms, according to staff rosters obtained by the Tribune.
For months, supervisors at Leighton have been “opening cases,” slang for the basic preliminary work that lower-level courtroom prosecutors perform, like getting paperwork in order.
And the courts are still recovering from COVID shutdowns that hit pause on nearly all cases.
“You now have first-chair ASAs who have no time to prepare for murders because they have so many that need to be set (for trial) because they’ve been pending forever,” one prosecutor said. “Even if you’re an experienced ASA, you’re going to get burned out if you just do trial after trial after trial. When do you get to look at the chessboard? … Opportunities to build a stronger case are going to fall by the wayside.”
Numbers in the felony review unit, whose prosecutors consider casework brought to them by police and decide whether charges are warranted, have also been dwindling. A team of felony review ASAs is in good shape with six or seven people, not counting the trial supervisors who review murder cases, one source said. But as of earlier this month, most teams were down to four, according to documents obtained by the Tribune.
A spokesperson for the office said they anticipate all Leighton courtrooms will be back to three attorneys by mid-August, and felony review will get additional staff as well. Applications from people interested in becoming ASAs have not dipped, even in an extremely competitive legal job market.
Even in areas of the office that have not particularly dramatic drops in staffing, the slow drip of attrition has been difficult.
“This drain, it’s been slow but it builds up and it gets worse and worse and worse,” one veteran prosecutor said, noting that the quality of the work inevitably suffers when attorneys are overloaded. “ ... The more people we drain, it puts extra weight on everybody else, it just makes the working environment harder. … It’s nobody’s fault who’s in the trenches, but that’s when mistakes are made.”
The departures of veteran prosecutors and midlevel management has led to concerns about brain drain. When older attorneys leave, newer attorneys don’t get the benefit of their on-the-job guidance. And beyond that, multiple rank-and-file prosecutors told the Tribune they were concerned that some less-experienced attorneys, through no fault of their own, are being promoted to fill positions they are not yet fully qualified for — an assertion that a spokesperson for the office pushed back against, saying in a statement that “we would never put ASAs in a position without giving them the training they need.”
“We have a robust training for new ASAs that includes mentorships and formal trainings. Movement has always happened within the office and it may be faster than in the past, but it is inaccurate to say that they are not ready to move up,” the statement read.
Meanwhile, prosecutors are attending what seems like an endless string of going-away parties. The mood at the gatherings is mostly somber, one told the Tribune.
“You’re happy for your colleague that they’re quote-unquote getting out, but you’re sad as (expletive), because you’re like, ‘Well, I’m not only losing a friend and a highly qualified ASA, that’s (also) just going to be more work for me.’”
(Chicago Tribune reporter A.D. Quig contributed to this report.)