SPRINGFIELD – State courts in Illinois are preparing to return to normal operations after nearly 16 months of operating under special rules brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Illinois Supreme Court on Wednesday issued two new rules that call for easing social distancing requirements and reimposing requirements for speedy trials in criminal and juvenile offender proceedings.
“It is important to note that our courts remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic and thousands of court proceedings have taken place via both in-person and virtual hearings,” Chief Justice Anne Burke said in a statement. “However, conducting criminal jury trials has been very difficult. These two orders will help our courts prepare for a return to full scale jury trials.”
On March 17, 2020, a little more than a week after Gov. JB Pritzker issued the first COVID-19 disaster declaration, the Supreme Court issued a sweeping order allowing courts to suspend ordinary deadlines in both criminal and civil proceedings and conduct remote hearings, and restricting access to courthouses throughout the state.
A few days later, on March 20, the Supreme Court issued another order that said any delays in criminal proceedings that resulted from the earlier order would not count toward the requirement for a speedy trial outlined in state law, which generally says defendants are entitled to a trial within 120 days from the date they are taken into custody or, if they are released on bail, within 160 days from the date the defendant demands a trial.
On April 20, the court issued yet another order extending the same allowance for delays to juvenile proceedings.
Those orders came at a time when the state, and Cook County in particular, had been trying to reduce the number of people held in local jails for pretrial detention. It also came just before the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus launched its social justice reform initiative which included a proposal to phase out the use of cash bail, an initiative that was signed into law earlier this year.
Speaking at a criminal justice reform conference Wednesday, Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx said that about 6,000 people were currently being held in the county’s jail, down significantly from the roughly 11,000 people being held there at any given time eight years ago.
And while she did not specifically mention the pandemic rules that paused the speedy trial requirements, she said the jail population had been “significantly lower” than 6,000 at the beginning of the pandemic, “and we’ve seen a steady increase.”
The latest order issued Wednesday calls for returning to normal speedy trial requirements, effective Oct. 1, which gives chief circuit judges 90 days to prepare for the delay to be lifted for both criminal and juvenile proceedings. It also provides that for defendants who were charged before March 20, all days they spent in custody or out on bail will count toward the speedy trial computation.
Another order the court issued in response to the pandemic came on May 20, 2020. It directed judges in each circuit to allow for “appropriate social distancing” in all proceedings and make attempts to reduce the number of people appearing personally for court appearances.
On Wednesday, the court amended that directive, giving chief circuit judges permission to either relax or eliminate entirely any social distancing requirements based on local conditions.