Shay Allen is a Democratic candidate for the Cook County Circuit Court Fifth Subcircuit in the state of Illinois, running in the primary election on March 20, 2018. A former Assistant State’s Attorney for Cook County, the second largest county in the United States, Allen is currently in charge of his own private law firm providing services in the areas of white collar crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes, and conviction records. He sat down with The Gate to discuss his legal career, share thoughts on the American judiciary, and detail institutional problems in the Illinois judicial system.
The Gate: What has been the most meaningful accomplishment of your legal career?
Shay Allen: For me it’s having my own law practice. I was originally at the State’s Attorney’s Office, then I worked at a small firm, then I got the opportunity to work on my own practice. This means that I got to focus on what I wanted to—great representation for those who don’t get it. These are folks who don’t have a lot of money, and who I think are marginalized a fair amount. I’ve had many cases where there were other attorneys on the case initially, and I didn’t think the results of the case were where they needed to be, so I had to step in and get good results for good people. I definitely think that owning my own practice has been my greatest legal achievement so far.
Gate: If you could propose a 28th Amendment to the Constitution, what would it be?
Allen: I think for the 28th it might be time to look at the Electoral College. I don’t think that the need it was designed for exists anymore. Voters are much more intelligent, much more informed, and much smarter. I think an election by popular vote would get the job done, and would certainly have gotten us a different outcome in the past election.
Gate: Should judges look past the principle of stare decisis (deference to precedent) when deciding a case, when their deeply held morals or convictions are opposed to that precedent?
Allen: No. Precedent is the main staple of the legal community. You have to look at prior cases, you have to look at what’s been done before. But legally, of course, there’s always ways around precedent. There are dissenting opinions, you can always look at the dissenting opinion and craft an opinion based on that. So even though there is precedent, that doesn’t necessarily mean your decision has to absolutely be in line with that—this is how any new law is made. So it’s always good to look at, and it’s always good to consider. It’s not the only thing that you can base your decisions on, but you can’t completely ignore it.
Gate: In Illinois, judges are elected and allowed to declare partisan affiliations. Isn’t the judiciary a branch of government that was designed to be impartial and nonpartisan?
Allen: I think it is, but Illinois has had a difficult political history, so I think that we need to make sure that it’s as fair as possible. It’s actually good that we have a dual system in Illinois, that you can be appointed or elected. I think one system or the other can be difficult—with appointments people can just appoint their friends, and elections in the past for judges have spread a lot of cronyism. But now, because voters are smarter, and people who are running for judgeship meet with them, voters can be better informed against cronyism. It’s a good system.
Gate: As it stands, there are no meaningful requirements to be a Supreme Court Justice. Should the nomination process require a law degree, prior time spent as a judge, or a history of public service?
Allen: I think that it should include a legal background, at the very least. Being a judge before does not necessarily mean that you’re going to be a good judge; this is my first time running for judge. But a legal background is necessary to be able to make very important decisions.
Gate: While there have been downward trends in recent years, Illinois is the state with the highest nationally rate of prison overcrowding. What should our response be?
Allen: We need to focus on alternative sentencing. When a lot of people come into court I think that there are usually about three issues that bring them there: mental health problems, lack of education, or general socio-economic issues. People don’t have employment or training, many mental health facilities has been closed and shut down, and so a lot of people end up in prison now. We need to work on funding to get those back open, and we need to get people treatment.
Just this week I was at a meeting with the Southeast Youth Jobs Collaborative, an organization on the South Side of the city, and there were at least fifteen organizations in there that were working with ex-offenders to get them jobs, through programs that a lot of people have never heard of. If these kinds of programs get more closely connected to the justice system, we can funnel people from the system to the programs. They’re looking for people, saying, “We don’t have enough people in our programs.” If we could funnel people directly into those programs, it would be phenomenal.
We can look at the Boeing Scholars Academy which is a public school on the South Side of Chicago. They have new program where they teach kids to become machinists, and they teach them skills that a lot of factories and industries are looking for. The program started a year ago, so a lot of people don’t know about it. Funneling people into these kinds of programs will cut down on the jail population and recidivism. Now, people have their mental health issues dealt with, they have their education, and they have a job, and I think that that will cut down on a lot of the issues here in Illinois.
Gate: How can the costs of judicial administration be reduced in Cook County?
Allen: It goes back to what I just explained. If recidivism decreases, the number of cases coming in would decrease. This means fewer courtroom appearances, fewer court calls, and it won’t be as crowded. Cook County needs to computerize more. Right now as a lawyer, I can’t go online at my office and look up the history of a criminal case. I have to go to the court house or speak to someone in person or on the phone. That’s very unusual in 2018. I think that both computerization and alternative sentencing would save us money.
Gate: What have been the most effective methods for improving courtroom procedures and efficiency?
Allen: The Clerk’s Office has started to become more modern, which is great. I think it’s become more popular now, for instance, there are some alternative programs which have been introduced into the legal system—TASK, and WRAP programs which deals with jobs. There are other alternative programs that the State’s Attorney’s Office has tried to implement. But we need judges who are willing to give people those chances. I think many times those chances still aren’t given, because judges are being resistant towards them.
Gate: If you observed a party in your courtroom being poorly represented by an unprepared or ineffective lawyer, how would you handle the situation as an elected official?
Allen: That’s a good question. One reason I started my own firm is because I used to see that all the time as a prosecutor. People would come in, and I’d think that their attorneys weren’t representing them the way they should be represented. I think it takes a personal touch. I’m a very hands-on person. If it’s necessary, I would take a break and bring both parties back. I’d have a general discussion about it. Say it were a civil case, where you have a briefing schedule showing where things need to get done, I’d say, “Okay, let’s go over the schedule. Is this or that going to happen?” I may be able to key in that attorney to things that are missing. But of course I can’t tell the client to get a new attorney; I can’t kick them off the case. I’d have to do it in a way that’s as general as possible, and hopefully the attorney will catch on.
Gate: What criteria would you use when deciding whether to impose or affirm a sentence that is higher than the standard range?Allen: There are a lot of factors that you can look at. I think age is an important factor: if someone is young or has lived life a little longer and had more experiences. I’d look at your family situation, your children, marital status, with elderly parents or grandparents. I’d look at the three issues I mentioned, such as job training. Also, regarding contrition, people make mistakes: we’re all human beings. We’re all better than the worst thing we’ve done. If someone shows actual contrition and it seems as though they want a chance, and want to move forward, that’s a factor to look at. Unfortunately, some people need longer sentences, either because no contrition is shown, there is a repeated pattern even when none of these other risk factors are present, or I’ve given them repeated opportunities to do what you need to do to show me that you want to change but you don’t. I’d look at all of those factors.
Opinions in this article do not necessarily align with those of the Gate. Image provided by the campaign.
Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a rising third year in the University of Chicago majoring in Political Science. He has served as the Communications Director of the African-Caribbean Students Association, as an intern in the office of Senator Claire McCaskill, and as a Complaint Counselor for the ACLU of Missouri. He looks forward to serving as a Senior Writer for the Gate!