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Person of the Year: Timothy C. Evans

December 01, 2017
By Jordyn Reiland
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

Update: A correction was made to a run-on sentence originally published in the fourth paragraph.


When Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans speaks of his nearly half-century career in public service, he finds himself spending less time looking back and more on what else can be done.

Prior to his time on the bench, the 74-year-old spent more than two decades working for the city as an assistant corporation counsel and as an elected City Council alderman.

As the first black chief circuit judge and soon-to-be longest serving chief judge in the Cook County Circuit Court’s 53-year history, he already has a story to tell.

But he’s not thinking of retiring. His plans are to move ahead.

This year alone, Evans signed an administrative order to assign public and private defense attorneys to represent defendants while they are at the police station; changed the cash-bail system to ensure that monetary bail is set in an amount someone can afford; and opened a Restorative Justice Community Court designed to reintegrate offenders back into the community through service.

Cook County Circuit Judge Sharon M. Sullivan, presiding judge of the County Division, lauded Evans’ changes to the criminal justice system. She said she recognizes the need for these changes as a former criminal court judge.

“He really wants to do things that can improve the justice system,” she said. “He’s had a long, distinguished career and if you just look at what he’s doing this year with these three things, beginning with the bond court, having defense attorneys at the police station and the restorative justice court in the community, you see that he’s willing to do what it takes to make the system better.”

Brendan Shiller, a member of the board of directors for the Westside Justice Center and partner at Shiller Preyar, said Evans’ efforts to improve the bail system took courage and patience, recognizing that it hasn’t always been easy. While Shiller has known Evans most of his life through his mother, former 46th Ward alderman Helen Shiller, he has just recently started working alongside Evans to help accomplish many of his efforts this year.

“I’ve seen him work very hard through very tricky political conditions and work to move a bunch of different interests in the same direction,” he said. “What he has done is played a leadership role in showing a vision to where the criminal justice system should be and where it’s going to end up.”

Evans sees these changes to the Cook County criminal justice system as part of a larger and ongoing commitment.

And if you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s just getting started.

Starting out

Born in 1943 in Hot Springs, Ark., Evans is often reminded that, but for a set of circumstances, he would still be in Arkansas today.

Arkansas was in the thick of the civil rights movement when progress was slowed by then-Gov. Orval Faubus, who refused to obey orders from President Dwight Eisenhower to desegregate the state’s school systems. The governor shut down the entire Little Rock school district for a year, sending some of its students to Hot Springs, nearly 50 miles away.

Evans’ mother, Tiny, had no desire to see her children miss out on any educational opportunities, so they fled the state and headed north.

“The facts of segregation in the South intervened and, as a result of that, my mother decided to move us to the North where we could have more opportunities and not be in a position where we might lose out on education just because of who we were or who we were considered to be in the South,” Evans said. “My mother would not stand for anything that stood in the way of education. She just wouldn’t have it.”

During this time Evans relied on several early influences — the first of which was his grandfather, who was the minister of several churches around the area. Every Sunday, Evans would drive his grandfather from church to church. This gave his grandfather time to share his thoughts on fairness, equality and oppression.

“I have always thought of it as an opportunity to sort of complete what democracy was supposed to do,” he said. “Given my background, I looked upon democracy as being a kind of unfinished quest. I always thought that if I could be in a position to make a difference, to push democracy forward a step or two, then that would be a glorious place to me.”

He always had a plan to attend medical school and become a doctor, but after he graduated from Hirsch High School in 1961, the civil rights movement swayed him toward another direction.

He saw that the people spurring the greatest social change were doing it from courtrooms, not emergency rooms.

“This was in the early 1960s and, at that time, the movers and shakers were not the people in the medical field. They were the lawyers, and that’s why people like Thurgood Marshall and others were so prominent in the lives of people who were trying to see oppression banished,” he said.

Instead of changing his major in the middle of his studies, Evans completed his premed coursework, got a bachelor’s degree in zoology and went on to The John Marshall Law School, graduating in 1969.

“I kid with my daughters and say, ‘Well I didn’t abandon medicine all together. I went to law school but I married a doctor, so that way I kept both,’” he said.

Public service

After graduation, Evans joined the city’s Law Department.

He later joined the city’s Department of Investigations, eventually becoming deputy commissioner. He was elected to the Chicago City Council in 1973, representing the 4th Ward. He looked to bridge the socioeconomic divide between Grand Boulevard and Oakland neighborhoods and the more affluent Hyde Park and Kenwood areas of the ward.

“My thought was to try and get those people working together so that those who had everything could be sensitized by those who had virtually nothing, and those who had virtually nothing could be inspired by the track record of those who had found a way to succeed no matter what the obstacles happened to be,” he said.

When Harold Washington was elected mayor in 1983, Evans played a significant role in the first black mayor’s administration.

“I think his commitment for public service certainly reinforced my own,” Evans said.

Evans assumed the role as council floor leader and chaired several major council committees, including finance, budget and health.

When Washington died while in office in 1987, Evans’ name surfaced to replace him. The city council ultimately voted instead to appoint Ald. Eugene Sawyer to fill out Washington’s term.

“[Washington] used to say, ‘I’m going to be mayor for 20 years,’ and I believed him. I would’ve been content to work right along with him,” he said. “I was not seeking an opportunity to run for mayor or anything like that.”

Evans did run for mayor as an independent candidate in the 1989 special election, but lost to Richard M. Daley, who defeated Sawyer in the Democratic primary and went on to become the city’s longest-serving mayor.

‘Reaching for the sky’

After losing a runoff election for the 4th Ward seat in 1991 to current Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Evans set his sights on the bench.

Elected to the circuit in 1992, Evans became the presiding judge of the Domestic Relations Division in three years. He was appointed in 2000 as presiding judge of the Law Division and was elected chief judge a year later.

Evans started making changes from the beginning — one of his first official actions as chief judge was to allow people who were arrested overnight to go before a judge for a bond hearing the day after. Hearings were previously conducted more impersonally via closed circuit television.

In the last few years, the county has undergone a series of budget crises that most recently led to calls for a $200 million cut across the board. Efforts to streamline Cook County justice — and make it more just — led to several reforms in the last year to keep people who don’t need to be in jail an opportunity to get out.

It starts with the moment a person is arrested.

In March, Evans issued an order affording either a public defender or a volunteer private attorney to represent defendants in police custody as soon as they ask for a lawyer. Before this change, people who sought free legal representation did not receive it until after their first court appearance.

“People who were under arrest would not have to worry if they had a wallet full of money to be able to call a lawyer to come,” he said.

First Defense Legal Aid, which provides volunteer lawyers filling the role of Cook County public defenders on nights, weekends and holidays, reviewed statistics for 2016 and found that less than 1 percent of all Chicago arrests that year resulted in an attorney visit to a police station.

Evans said when someone is being interviewed at a police station and they do not have a lawyer present, they may be more likely to say things that get them in trouble.

“That’s where they are vulnerable to confessing to something they may not have done,” he said.

Another move to keep the jail load light came in September, when Cook County debuted its Pretrial Division, which replaces Central Bond Court. The Pretrial Division evaluates whether defendants should be freed with no bail or minimum bail before trial.

Since the order went into effect Sept. 17 until Nov. 2, the Cook County Jail population declined by 977 people, Evans said, dropping from 7,490 inmates to 6,513 inmates.

The policy, which currently applies to those who have been charged with nonviolent felonies, will go into effect for defendants facing misdemeanor charges on Jan. 1.

Evans said he has looked to reform the bail system since 2007 and when he realized he wasn’t getting the adequate funds from the county board he decided to use resources the circuit court already had.

“We didn’t stop we just moved on with what we could do,” he said.

Evans said the number of I-bonds are increasing significantly while cash bonds are plummeting. He also said about 97 percent of the people who have been released since the order went into effect are coming to court when required and are not being rearrested while awaiting trial.

“Some of the things that we’re doing, maybe they are not some things that some people had done before we got here, but it’s reaching for the sky and that’s the perfect example of that,” he said.

But keeping people out of jail can also happen by keeping them out of a courtroom.

In July, the circuit launched the first Restorative Justice Community Court in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. The program, open to those ages 18 to 26, brings together nonviolent offenders and the people they hurt — not just the direct victim, but also family, friends, community members and other affected by the crime — around a table with a judge to hash out differences and come up with restitution other than jail time. Solutions can involve community service, letters of apology, substance-abuse treatment or anything else the people sitting in the circle agree to.

The idea is to get away from punishment and instead help those involved become better citizens and residents of the community, Evans said.

As the program gets underway, Evans said he is looking to expand the idea to other communities such as Englewood and Austin.

“What I hope is not only will we be able to stop the illegal material that’s underway, but the people can return to the community as contributing citizens as opposed to coming back as a problem for the community,” he said.

Doing more with less

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas L. Kilbride called Evans a “Teflon man” who constantly has criticism slung at him but continues to maintain an even temper.

When researching how best to reform the Cook County bail system, Evans and Kilbride traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak with judges on how they run their bail system.

“He has taken some real big steps in the last several months,” Kilbride said.

Evans also touted Cook County’s 19 specialty courts designed to help people who are facing certain situations. Drug court specifically has become increasingly important given the increased number of opioid-related deaths, he said. Evans said investing in those who need help pays off because they often come back to help others.

“When we invest public dollars in those special programs, those people are not putting the money in their pocket and running away. They get cured and then they want to help others get back on their feet just as they received help,” he said.

As Evans has remained committed to developing new programs and expanding upon ways to improve justice, he has recognized that it all comes at a price.

“It’s certainly incumbent upon us to find a way to do with less,” he said. “It’s not that we don’t need their resources it’s just that we can’t afford to wait to have as many resources as we need.”

In early November, Evans submitted a budget proposal that would reduce their yearly expenses by 14 percent. Preckwinkle asked each department to cut back their budget by 10 percent, coming on the heels of a failed soda tax. Without the tax, the county faced a roughly $200 million hole in the 2018 budget.

“We’re trying to do our part to cooperate with our taxpayers,” Evans said.

Terrence Murphy, executive director of The Chicago Bar Association, said the budget continues to be tight at both a statewide and county level and the demands for justice are equally if not greater than it’s ever been. Despite those obstacles, Murphy said he believes Evans is up for the challenge.

“He is the real deal,” Murphy said.

On race

Evans knows he’s the first black chief judge, but according to him, it’s not so much about being first as it is preparing for the second, third and beyond.

“One of the things you could probably find if you talk to people who are firsts in something, we don’t celebrate being the first as much as we celebrate the opportunity to keep the door open by being the first and opening that door for others who have to come through it,” he said.

He said had he listened to those who reminded him that there hadn’t been anyone who looked like him at the helm, he wouldn’t have had one term, let alone six.

“We make decisions on the evidence presented, not on what race or ethnicity you are,” he said.

When speaking on the issue, Evans pointed to an array of photos in the conference room of his office of every judge in the Cook County Circuit Court, highlighting the men and women of all different races, genders, religions and sexualities representing the county.

“It’s a work in progress but we continue to work toward that,” he said. “I think we can use the judiciary to keep those doors open and to send a message to the world that, ‘Hey, we’re still fighting for it.”

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