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Burdened by decades of files, Kane County Public Defender’s Office works toward digitization

ST. CHARLES TOWNSHIP – In a public defender's office that handles thousands of cases each year, paperwork is bound to pile up.

But when the storage of that paperwork is bound by rules that could require the files be kept for years – perhaps even decades – the documents become more than a pile.

They become a problem.

Burdened by decades of files, Kane County Public Defender Kelli Childress said her office has resorted to storing boxes under desks and in rooms that could be used for office supplies or by employees.

"If we could get rid of the paperwork, we would have so much more space," she said.

The crowding was particularly evident when an area identified as a potential training room couldn't be turned into that because the files it contained had nowhere else to go, she said.

Childress started to help reduce the problem when she joined the office in 2011 by ensuring duplicates of court orders, police reports and other documents tied to a case weren't saved, she said.

This summer, the Public Defender's Office is tackling the issue even further. With help from first-year Northern Illinois University law students, it is beginning the tedious process of identifying files that can be eradicated.

"Even weeding them out will be multiple months," Childress said.

Childress introduced the intern program to Kane County Board members at a committee meeting in March, where she provided photographs and numbers to illustrate the "staggering" amount of paperwork tied to her office.

By her estimates, she told the committee, nearly 97,000 files need to be eradicated, and the roughly 406,916 pounds – that's more than 200 tons – of paperwork is not only stored in the Kane County Judicial Center but also in other county buildings.

And if her office ever needs to find an old file – good luck.

"There's no order to them," Childress said, adding it could take weeks to find an older case.

Childress hopes to transition to a digital file-keeping system and has gotten cooperation from Kane County Circuit Clerk Tom Hartwell and the IT department to make it happen, she said.

At the start of June, the interns were focused on sorting the records and placing files on shelves labeled "ready to scan" and "ready to shred."

While the Public Defender's Office handles all sorts of cases – from traffic violations to murders – the interns are working on misdemeanor files, which have specific guidelines for retention, said Vanessa Rogalla, executive assistant to the public defender.

Files that meet the secretary of state's guidelines for disposal will go straight to shred, she said, and files that don't will be scanned for retention, then shredded.

For first-year law students, Childress said, the sorting process is a way for them to learn about different charges and sentencing ranges. The interns already had crowded a potential lunchroom with waist-high, twine-tied bundles of files ready to be shredded within the first few weeks of starting.

"They've been wonderful," Rogalla said.

When Childress began this project, she said she was afraid she would have to ask the County Board for money to shred the documents. At the March committee meeting, she talked about potentially obtaining an industrial shredder, but she since has received better news.

She found a suburban company that will pay the Public Defender's Office for the paper shredded, she said, but she does not yet know how much that could amount to.

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