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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

Pandemic Brings Changes To Justice System

McLean County Law and Justice Center
Ralph Weisheit
The legal system has slowed to a crawl amid the pandemic according to various sources in the field.

The wheels of justice are turning at a slower pace in McLean County as police, judges and attorneys navigate the legal system during the coronavirus outbreak.

The number of arrests in Bloomington and Normal are down since March, a reflection of new police policies to issue notices to appear in court to low level offenders who likely would be taken to jail absent the pandemic.

In Normal, the total calls for service were down about 17% during the first 15 days in April, according to Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner. Officers saw a 25% hike in calls related to potential violations of social-distancing guidelines, said the police chief.

The 20% increase in the number of domestic violence calls in Normal mirrors what other jurisdictions have seen during the stay-at-home mandate.

Normal Police began to prioritize calls for service in mid-March, said Bleichner, to limit face-to-face contact between officers and the public. Staff were directed to wipe down workstations and squad cars were cleaned after each shift.

New policies unfolded as the pandemic unfolded.

"At the beginning of all this, both sides were willing to make a lot of deals."

“We have an emergency plan for different situations. A pandemic was not necessarily one of those,” said Bleichner. 

The steps taken to protect officers and the public through the use of personal protection gear and other measures “will be added to our emergency preparedness plan,” said the Normal chief.

Bloomington's Numbers

Bloomington has seen a decrease in the number of arrests since March, said Chief Dan Donath.

The 93 arrests in March this year were down from 128 in 2019, and the trend also bends downwards for April with just 64 arrests during the first 19 days of the month.

BPD officers also saved trips to jail for those accused of violent offenses, said Donath.

Officers in both departments have an adequate supply of protective gear and don the equipment on calls where close contact with people is possible. Support staff at both departments are working from home.

“We don’t want to give it to anyone or have them give it to us,” Donath said of the virus.

The hallways of the McLean County Law and Justice Center, normally filled with people waiting in line to pay traffic tickets or attend a court hearing, are deserted as almost 3,000 hearings and all jury trials were postponed in response to the virus.

In a March 16 emergency order, Eleventh Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Mark Fellheimer reduced hearings to felonies, juvenile abuse and neglect cases, juvenile delinquency, bail and domestic violence cases. Some hearings are conducted on the phone, or through video links.

Emergency matters in civil cases are heard, with Fellheimer urging lawyers to file paperwork electronically. The order impacts proceedings in McLean, Logan, Livingston, Woodford and Ford counties.

Details of the court’s plan were discussed during a weekend meeting in mid-March that included Fellheimer, felony division judges, Sheriff Jon Sandage and Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman. 

Fellheimer likened the virus response to a hurricane. “It changes every minute,” he said.

The resumption of thousands of hearings is the next big challenge, said Fellheimer.

“Now our focus is on how to reopen. It’s mind bending and we’re going to have to be creative. All of us have had to lean on each other to work through this,” said the chief judge.

Aggressive Negotiations

Many pending cases were resolved in a flurry of plea agreements, said State’s Attorney Don Knapp.

“At the beginning of all this, both sides were willing to make a lot of deals,” said Knapp.

The aggressive negotiations helping bring the jail’s population to its lowest level in more than 20 years.

The lull in court appearances has allowed prosecutors to focus on ongoing cases, among them the county’s 13 murder cases, said Knapp. Much of that work is being done from home.

According to Public Defender Carla Barnes, “the plea agreements that were entered into were in the interest of justice.”

The cooperation between the state and defense lawyers allowed non-violent, older and detainees with underlying medical conditions to be released from jail, said Barnes.

The public defender acknowledged her concerns “regarding the suspension of speedy trials and the temporary elimination of jury trials.” Missing during the pandemic are the last-minute offers from the state common on the eve of a jury trial, said Barnes.

“Those clients in custody, particularly those who could now be acquitted are most harmed and with that understanding, my attorneys will continue to answer ready (for trial) and prepare to defend our clients,” said Barnes.

Not everyone is pleased with the delays in the courtroom. Families and victims in several pending cases have asked prosecutors to file objections to the delays which have added to their emotional distress.

“Some people are very upset. It’s not an indictment of the court. Our courts are doing the best they can, but you feel for the victims,” said Knapp.

As the office with the highest rate of contact with the public, the McLean County circuit clerk’s office has shifted all face-to-face contact in its civil division to third floor offices where glass barriers protect workers and visitors.  

The clerk’s 49 workers rotate their schedules between home and the office, said Circuit Clerk Don Everhart.

“We’ve had to keep essential services going,” said Everhart, including filings for orders of protection and notices of delayed court hearings.

Staff morale “is good. We’ve been really busy, but it’s a team effort to keep everything going right now,” said Everhart.

McLean County’s 80-plus confirmed cases of coronavirus do not include Twin City police or staff at the Law and Justice Center, a noteworthy accomplishment, according to criminal justice leaders.

The question of when and how the courts will reopen will be answered in the coming weeks as state officials provide guidance to communities, said Will Scanlon, court administrator for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit. Until then, the courts will continue to function on a limited basis.

The county’s emergency plan covers pandemics, blizzards and other disasters, said Scanlon, but the ongoing coronavirus threat requires a new type of flexibility.

“The uncertainty of the time period and the unique, open-ended aspect of it has been a challenge,” said Scanlon.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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