Illinois Supreme Court

The Illinois Supreme Court has officially found that operational challenges in Illinois circuit courts will necessitate remote pretrial hearings to comply with the pretrial release provisions of the SAFE-T Act, according to an Order issued in late August.

The Safety, Accountability, Fairness, and Equity-Today (SAFE-T) Act, which provides reforms to various aspects of the criminal justice system, including pretrial detention and bail, sentencing, and corrections, goes into effect on September 18, 2023.

Under the SAFE-T Act, Illinois circuit courts must conduct hearings (at times within 48 hours of an arrest) to decide if a defendant should be detained or released with or without conditions, the Court said.

Due to the operational challenges related to holding these hearings in person, the Court order says that circuit courts have reason to use “two-way audio-visual communications systems” to conduct the hearings when necessary.

The order, which was proposed by the Illinois Judicial Conference’s Remote Proceedings Task Force, will remain in effect through March 18, 2024. Read the order here.

Challenges accommodating in-person hearings

The Illinois Supreme Court has long emphasized the importance of remote proceedings to support access to justice and court efficiency (see Supreme Court Rules 45 and 241). In addition, in 2022 the Court created a Remote Proceedings Task Force to evaluate the use of remote proceedings and provide best practice for courts across the state.

The recent Supreme Court Order noted that courts have been taking steps to address operational challenges related to scheduling in-person hearings, like “adding staff, training existing staff to conduct the investigations and hearings, adjusting court schedules, reconfiguring courtrooms, and planning for disbursement of the fund established by 55 ILCS 5/34014 (West 2022) to enhance public defender services.”

However, according to the Order, obtaining the necessary information and conducting hearings within the specified timeframe will require increased resources for the circuit courts, state’s attorneys, public defenders, and other justice partners, which are already limited.

The Order noted that the courts will not only be conducting initial hearings for newly arrested individuals but also for the over 9,000 people currently in pretrial detention.

Chief circuit judges seeking to hold remote pretrial hearings must enter a local order approving the operational challenges documented in the Supreme Court Order and providing that remote pretrial hearings are to be conducted in their circuit where necessary.

Local orders must be submitted to the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC) and available to the public. Circuits do not need to submit a plan to address operational challenges to the AOIC while the Supreme Court’s Order remains in effect.

Background on the SAFE-T Act

In July 2023, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the Pretrial Fairness Act (PFA) provision in the SAFE-T Act, setting Illinois up to be the first state to eliminate cash bail.

In preparation for the SAFE-T Act, which was initially to go into effect on January 1, 2023, the Illinois Supreme Court and its stakeholders have moved quickly to prepare state courts and justice partners to implement the changes.

In 2020, the Illinois Supreme Court created the Pretrial Implementation Task Force to prioritize and implement the recommendations of a report from the Supreme Court Commission on Pretrial Practices.

The Task Force has created resources, sample orders, and other important documents to support the courts and justice partners in preparing for the PFA. They can be found on the Court’s website.

The Pretrial Practices Data Oversight Board released a report in 2022 to inform a strategy for collecting and analyzing data on pretrial practices in the Illinois circuit court system.

In addition, on August 23, 2023, the Illinois Supreme Court created the Committee on Pretrial Education to provide ongoing education on pretrial best practices for judges, pretrial officers, and other judicial branch justice partners.

Moreover, the Supreme Court and AOIC are working on a plan to distribute $10 million appropriated by the General Assembly to the newly created Public Defender Fund. The funds will support public defenders and public defender services in 101 counties with populations of less than 3,000,000.

To learn more, visit the Illinois Supreme Court’s website here.

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