Illinois courts get flexibility on remote detention hearings as state prepares for end of cash bail

Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis said the decision was made due to “the anticipated volume of investigations and hearings on pretrial detention” when bail reform goes into effect Sept. 18.

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Illinois Supreme Court building.

The Illinois Supreme Court building in Springfield

State of Illinois

The Illinois Supreme Court issued an order Wednesday granting courts in the state greater flexibility to conduct detention hearings remotely as they brace for bail reform next month.

The announcement comes weeks before the state will eliminate cash bail under the Pretrial Fairness Act, which mandated that detention hearings be held in person within 48 hours of an arrest with few exceptions.

In announcing the order, Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis said the high court made the decision due to “the anticipated volume of investigations and hearings on pretrial detention” when the act goes into effect on Sept. 18.

“The courts will be conducting initial hearings not only for newly arrested individuals but also for the over 9,000 individuals who are currently in pretrial detention, resulting in a temporary but significant influx of these types of hearings,” the order states.

The court’s justices upheld the Pretrial Fairness Act in a historic ruling in July, making the state the first in the nation to fully eliminate cash bail as a condition of pretrial release.

With their ruling, the justices overturned a Kankakee County judge’s finding last year that the act was unconstitutional, as a flurry of lawsuits from sheriff’s and state’s attorneys’ offices across the state had contended.

The Pretrial Fairness Act was passed as part of a larger package of reforms known as the SAFE-T Act that were signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2021.

Noting the “limited resources” of circuit courts in the state, Theis said she believed the order was necessary to ensure statewide compliance.

“The order permits chief circuit judges to enter local orders approving the operational challenges documented by the Supreme Court and to order these hearings to be conducted remotely where necessary,” the announcement states.

The court said the order was proposed by a task force that considers the use of remote hearings in the court.

The order is likely a response to concerns raised by circuit courts in jurisdictions covering large geographic areas with lower population levels.

At a presentation Tuesday afternoon to local attorneys in McHenry County, Chief Judge Michael Chmiel said the 48-hour rule had been identified as “one of the biggest” challenges to his court, particularly when holidays disrupt the court’s regular calendar.

The order will remain in place for six months, indicating the justices intend that the measure only be used as a stopgap to help court systems comply with new detention hearing requirements initially, then return to a system that largely requires in-person appearances in the future.

Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans declined to comment Wednesday on the Supreme Court’s order and whether it would impact Cook County plans.

Criminal justice advocates who supported the reforms, including Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell, have pushed for detention hearings to be held in person, arguing that clients who appear remotely before judges can face worse outcomes in their cases.

“The Supreme Court’s order should not change plans for implementation in Cook County, where we have had in-person bond hearings 365 days per year for decades,” Mitchell said in a statement. “Having our clients in court, in person for Pretrial Fairness Act hearings is an essential component of how the new law creates processes that reflect the seriousness of deciding whether someone who is presumed innocent is released or jailed while awaiting trial.”

Remote hearings became commonplace across the state during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to keep the courts open.

But even as the courts resumed holding the majority of criminal hearings in person, the Supreme Court announced changes late last year that cemented the continued use of remote hearings as an option.

“We learned that certain types of proceedings could easily and just as effectively be handled [remotely],” Illinois Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Rochford told the Sun-Times earlier this year.

A task force also cited greater participation in hearings, and acknowledged the time and travel requirements of people appearing in court. It noted there was a desire by private defense attorneys, criminal defendants and litigants to see remote hearings continue as an option.

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