CENTRAL ILLINOIS (WCIA) — Remote court appearances may have expanded or first appeared in some counties due to the pandemic, but they are no longer considered a temporary measure.
Technology has officially moved many Illinois court hearings away from the courthouse, and the state Supreme Court signaled Thursday that those virtual hearings are here to stay.
With the path forward to expand remote courts clear, we’ve taken a look at the transition so far through the eyes of those who spend every working day in the courtroom. For the most part, this is seen as a benefit, a lightened burden on defendants and attorneys, but at least some Illinois judges and prosecutors say going all the way would be detrimental to justice.
Coles County State’s Attorney Jesse Danley recalled his days as an assistant about five years ago when limited remote options first appeared at the courthouse. It wasn’t until spring 2020 that it became a regular practice.
“There is definitely a push to change the outdated, perhaps, way of courtship and I think everyone is trying to adapt as best we can,” he said.
Criminal defense lawyer Tom Bruno, of Bruno Law Offices, said “it’s probably about 40 years later than necessary”.
That’s around the time he opened his practice in Urbana.
“Some counties are vast and remote and rural, and the idea that it makes more sense to drive there and stand in a courtroom for five minutes and say, ‘Your honor, I move to pursue this case “and then you drive an hour and a half back to your office”, Bruno died, before adding that the technology made available thanks to the pandemic is “a step in the right direction”. .
“Access to justice is that people who don’t have a lot of income sometimes have to take a whole day off to go to a relatively insignificant court appearance.”
Defendants housed in prisons “must get into a van and be driven to the courthouse with security. And it takes hours to do it for each case,” Bruno said.
Unlike many rural counties, the Champaign County courthouse is only a few miles from the farthest satellite jail, but there are nearly 70 defendants incarcerated in Kankakee County due to overcrowding. .
That — and the public defender’s visits to Kankakee Detention Center — are at taxpayer expense.
“That’s why your bank doesn’t have as many tellers anymore and sometimes even more lobby, because they learned 20-30 years ago that automation and having people do it online allows the bank save a lot of money, and customers love it too,” Bruno said.
Back in Coles County, Danley says it’s unclear at this point if the remote option has any effect on how many people show up for their hearings.
“But, you know, a number of our defendants in criminal court, I know a lot of them don’t have access to a phone, so they certainly don’t have access to a computer.”
There’s a certain formality to holding the hearing in the courtroom, the state’s attorney added: “The seriousness of the situation is that, you know, the judge is on the bench.”
The Supreme Court’s latest order continues to draw a hard line by dividing the cases that can be heard remotely. Jury trials are not an option.
Champaign County Associate Judge Bret Olmstead called the remote expansion a “honeymoon phase.” He said remote hearings involving testimony presented a credibility issue, including possible “cheats” or the ability to read on another screen in the room without anyone knowing. Judge Olmstead says you also miss a lot of someone’s behavior in a remote setting.
The judge expects remote access to still be present for hearings without evidence. However, he was “totally opposed” to holding jury trials from a screen, which has begun in other states.
Civil proceedings are another ball game. Danley said these are dealt with much more commonly online at this point. The Illinois Supreme Court has enshrined a preference for video for civil cases in its rules released during the pandemic.
He also announced on Thursday the formation of a “remote proceedings task force” to assess how these virtual hearings are handled from county to county and to work on combining “best practices”.
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