Kane County sees big drop in warrants for missing court
Ken Shepro didn't expect anything out of the ordinary when he showed up in a Kane County courtroom on Sept. 24. But it turned out the simple act of him taking his traditional lawyer's seat was the most unusual thing in the room.
Shepro was there for just one of the 80 mortgage foreclosure cases on the courtroom's daily docket. Instead of a packed courtroom, Shepro found just himself, a bailiff, a court clerk and the judge. Everyone else, including all the lawyers and clients for every other case, appeared virtually.
"It was a very strange feeling," Shepro said. "Like, 'Where is everybody?'"
That near-empty courtroom may be the new normal for Kane County and other judicial circuits throughout Illinois.
The adoption of various forms of technology to keep courts running during the pandemic and allow people to safely attend hearings even before COVID-19 in Kane County has fueled a dramatic decrease in people failing to appear for court.
Kane County Court Services Executive Director Lisa Aust said people failed to appear for court in up to 9% of cases before the technology changes. Now, people fail to appear about 3% of the time.
"A few percentage points may not sound like enough," Aust said. "But when we are processing over 5,000 arrests a year in this county, a few percentage points really does make a big difference,"
The effort spans all aspects of Kane County's judicial system. While Zoom calls haven't resulted in judges trading judicial gowns for bathrobes, the ability to appear virtually and get texts, emails and even phone calls to relatives about court dates have all led to more people showing up for hearings. On the day of a court appearance, public defenders will scramble to locate a no-show client to get them to hop onto Zoom and avoid a future arrest on a failure to appear warrant.
Chief Judge Clint Hull said the changes are positive and in line with new policies recognizing the negative impact transportation challenges, the embarrassment of telling a job supervisor you need to go to court, or even missing one day of work can have on some people.
"The emphasis has been on not issuing warrants," Hull said. "When I started my career, if somebody didn't show up, it was pretty routine that you just issued a warrant right away. There wasn't a question about did we call or send a reminder. Nowadays that's completely flipped on its head. Now (with the exception of violent crimes) when warrants get issued, it's after almost everything that can be done to try to find out why they're not in court has been done."
Hull said the Illinois Supreme Court was quick to issue communications to lower courts telling judges they don't need to go back to demanding in-person appearances if they've found other effective methods. And that applies to the judges and lawyers who would also normally be in court.
"We don't want to regress on all the advances we have made," Hull said. "These are improvements that would have probably taken five to 10 years without COVID."
Still, for longtime attorneys like Shepro, who still has an AOL email address, the changes to virtual courtrooms do involve embracing technology that has been a minor part of their professional lives until now. But there are many obvious advantages, he said.
For one, Shepro said he can take on both more clients and cases in more varied geographies. Until now, he'd often travel an hour or more from one courthouse to another for hearings that sometimes lasted only 30 seconds.
"It also seems safer," Shepro said. "Maybe you don't want the guy in a drunk driving case driving to court. And there is no problem with social distancing, that's for sure."