CHICAGO: Public defender Victor Erbring has worked in Cook County’s main criminal courthouse for more than a decade, but he still keeps a map of the place over his desk to make sure he doesn’t get lost.

The jail complex here is roughly four square blocks in size. It houses roughly 15,000 people, which is about the size of a medium-sized American city. It is all filled with people who are charged with crimes or are serving sentences of 365 days or less.

Erbring’s office represents most people jailed and convicted here. Over the past decade, that’s nearly 220,000 people–enough to fill Chicago’s largest sports stadium, Soldier Field, more than three-and-a-half times over. On any given day, roughly 9,500 people sit in Cook County jail. Most are in limbo, waiting for their cases to wind through the courts. Critics call this place a “felony factory.”

One of the few breaks inmates get are when their cases are called up for some kind of review. Then they’re taken through the maze of tunnels that connect the jails to the courthouse.

At the start of the day here, I follow Erbring’s partner Peter Benesh to the place where public defenders meet many of their new clients, the “lockup.”

The lockup area is a 10- by 20-foot cage with steel bars around it. There are usually two next to one another, and both are usually filled to capacity, which means 40-50 people in each lockup.

When you walk into the lockup, one of the first things that you notice is the loud echo of voices. The inmates here are chatty and excited, and their voices bounce off the concrete floors.

Erbring’s clients have usually been living in the court complex for weeks by the time he meets them. They’ve been through bond court, felony review and arraignment. Still, Erbring says he doesn’t usually have much more than a file folder with an arrest report to go on when he meets many of them. And the most important thing in that folder? It’s usually the prosecutor’s offer.

The offer is how much the client’s sentence can be reduced if they plead guilty instead of arguing their innocence in a jury trial.

“If the prosecutor…writes down an offer, which often they do on cases that don’t involve serious violent offenses, the next thing that we tell them [is that] the state made this offer,” Erbring explains. “If you look at this from a client’s perspective, we are giving them bad news, then we’re giving them more bad news, then we’re telling them what would happen if they plead guilty.”

Typically, the next time Erbring sees his clients is in the courtroom, which is just down the hallway from the lockup.

Erbring describes Courtroom 602 as “one of those rooms that you may have seen in a movie.

“It’s a big formal courtroom as opposed to these small rooms that we refer to as fishbowls,” he says.

The pace on a typical day can be dizzying. Within 30 minutes, 12 defendants are called to the bench. Erbring or another public defender represent seven of those called.

The hearings are short. Within three minutes (usually less), the clerk has stamped the case file, the judge has set the next court date, and a deputy has whisked the defendant back to the lockup.

“This goes on month after month,” says Locke Bowman, the head of the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center, a legal clinic at Northwestern University. “The jail is not an attractive place. It’s not a pleasant place to be confined. Folks are separated from their lives, from their families, and pressure builds to get out. To find some kind of resolution.”

Bowman and others say it’s not just those behind bars who want the cases resolved. The public defenders have so many clients, they need to keep things moving.

“The attorneys are hardened to the worst kinds of cases,” former Cook County public defender Leonard Cavise says.

“I remember this happening to me. I remember clients telling me, you know, the cops beat this confession out of me. It isn’t that I had a ho-hum response, but I’d heard that many times before,” Cavise recalls. “Or a person would say to me, ‘I’m innocent! I’m innocent! I want to go to trial.’ And my response would be, ‘Fine, you want to go to trial, you can go to trial. But there’s a terrible risk associated with going to trial. That’s what we call the jury tax. You’re going to get punished a whole lot more severely.’”

So you have attorneys under pressure to close cases, plus antsy clients; Cavise and others say this is why most cases never make it to trial.

Public defenders don’t write the laws. They’re doing their best to find a workable outcome. And nearly eight out of 10 times, they say, that outcome is a plea bargain. A plea bargain is when a defendant takes the offer I mentioned before. The bargain is that they plead guilty, and in exchange their sentence is reduced. But they are also agreeing to a permanent criminal record, instead of convincing a jury of their innocence and being released.

Plea deals are criticized because they’re awfully convenient for the overloaded court system. But public defender Peter Benesh says they’re not always bad, and he insists they don’t point to weak lawyering.

“There are a lot of cases where I have put in every bit as much time on a plea as you would on a trial. And what you’re trying to do is get the best result for your client. And to that end, oftentimes the best result for your client is limiting their exposure [to a harsher sentence],” Benesh says.

Lawyer groups, like the American Bar Association, have been critical of the caseloads that public defenders have to carry. They say that it slights justice. In a perfect world, caseloads would be capped at 150 per year.

A handful of public defender offices across the country have taken a stand against the caseloads over the past few years. Some places have responded by setting new protections, like caseload standards. In other places, the courts have simply forced public defenders offices to take more cases.

Erbring has little hope that public defenders offices will get more funds to hire enough lawyers and investigators. “How do you convince taxpayers and legislators to properly fund an office like ours when most people believe that what we do is represent guilty people—criminals?” he asks.

The attorneys in Courtroom 602 aren’t exactly keeping score on how many cases they get. According to Cook County’s recent records, each attorney working in a felony courtroom took an average of 236 cases a year.

In the eyes of former public defender Leonard Cavise, Cook County’s system is designed so bureaucracy beats justice: across the courtroom aisles, prosecutors, defenders, and judges all struggle under the same crushing load.

“They have to work so carefully together on plea bargains [and] they have to make a lot of deals with each other: ‘I’ll give you two years in this case, but I want you to give me in that other case, give me the four years that you promised me or that you said that you would think about in another case,’” Cavise says.

“Yes, we like to say in the United States that we’re in an adversarial system where the defendant has all these rights, including the right to a trial by jury, or a right to a trial by the judge…That’s all a lot of bologna,” Cavise believes.

While Erbring isn’t exactly quick to defend the status quo, he says that public defenders in Cook County give their clients not just an adequate defense, but an exceptional one.

“Most public defenders are willing to go further in most cases than other attorneys in trying to find some way to get their client a better outcome,” Erbring says. “That doesn’t always mean finding that last witness who’s going to be the linchpin witness for them and find them not guilty. But it means digging deeper and finding out more information so their client can have better opportunities.

“And I don’t think anyone does that better than public defenders,” he says.

Read Angela Caputo’s recent piece for the Chicago Reporter: “Swallowed by the System”

Read more about the Cook County, Illinois Justice System: Guide to the Criminal Justice System

Photo Credit: Cook County public defenders Peter Benesh and Victor Erbring. Photo by Lucio Villa.