Continuous system appears to help trials move along promptly

Continuous system appears to help trials move along promptly

"Might as well take your belts off. Make sure you have everything out of your pockets. Put it in the bowls. Put the bowl on the conveyor." – Champaign County court security officer Ashlee Vercler

Welcome to the Champaign County Courthouse in Urbana, where security screening is the first glimpse that legal consumers get of the justice system.

And these days there are a lot more folks coming through the front door of the county courthouse, thanks to a change implemented in June by Presiding Judge Thomas Difanis.

In an effort to whittle away at the high number of felony cases waiting to be tried, Difanis decreed, with the financial imprimatur of the county board, that juries would hear cases every week of the month instead of only two weeks as had been the case for more than 25 years.

"It's still new. We're working through some of the bugs," said Difanis, the CEO of the county's court system.

The continuous jury term was welcomed by most of the players in the justice system, such as the judges, state's attorneys, public defenders and jurors. The prosecutors and public defenders are assigned to specific courtrooms, giving them consistency in terms of scheduling and personalities.

The main naysayers are members of the private defense bar, who must spend many more hours at the courthouse. The switch also has meant more work for the employees who work with jurors and the judges' clerks.

"I'm seeing less nonproductive time," Judge Harry Clem diplomatically observed.

The new system seems to be having the desired effect.

In April, for example, 681 cases were on the felony pretrial list. Difanis was the sole judge administering the felony call, meaning he would call all the cases, then later dole them out to other judges for trial.

With the switch to the continuous jury term, he has divided the felonies among himself, Clem and Judge Heidi Ladd. Each of them administers his or her own caseload, holding a pretrial conference call one day a month.

The call used to take Difanis an entire day. It now takes each of the judges about two hours.

In August, the combined number of felonies awaiting trial was 385.

However, at the last combined pretrial conference in May, the out-of-custody defendants had their cases continued anywhere from June through December, so the summer numbers are artificially low.

"I think we are trying more cases. I think we are moving more cases," Difanis said, the latter reference meaning more cases are being resolved either by trial, guilty plea or dismissal. "By next year, we'll have a better idea of how this is going to work.

"It's a work in progress. I institute a procedure. The defense bar figures out ways to get around it, then I have to figure out ways to get around them getting around my ways," Difanis laughed.

Difanis has ordered that all requests for continuances not only must be in writing, but they must be accompanied by the reason for the continuance. Previously, he allowed attorneys to stand up in court and make an oral request for a continuance.

He also mandates that clients show up for every pretrial conference. Previously, their appearances could be waived if the attorneys agreed to continue the case.

Even before the continuous jury term was implemented, Difanis ordered that cases involving clients being held in jail get resolved within 60 days unless there was some compelling reason for a continuance, such as the unavailability of DNA results.

All those elements have helped light a fire under attorneys.

"My preliminary observation is that it's helping us expedite the resolution of the cases. That has the indirect beneficial fallout to the jail population and trying to afford defendants the right to a speedy trial," Clem said.

The jail population, down earlier this summer, had crept back up to 267 Tuesday, just 14 shy of capacity, said Capt. Jim Young, who oversees the jail.

Young and Difanis said it's hard to say if the continuous jury term has had a significant impact on the jail numbers. Young said 220 is the optimal number of inmates.

When the numbers get too high, Sheriff Dan Walsh alerts Difanis. A team including judges, the state's attorney and the public defender see what they can do, such as plead out cases or reduce bonds.

"We're getting wonderful cooperation from the public defenders, the state's attorneys and the private bar," Clem said. "Everyone is trying to work very hard to make it work. I think it's too early to tell if it's going to be a success yet because of the transition from the old system and the cases that followed along."

In budget terms, the amount spent on juries since the continuous system began the second week in June through the end of August was $36,466. At least 15 felony trials, one sexually dangerous person trial and one medical malpractice trial were heard in that time.

In June, July and August 2005, the cost was $28,747. There were 19 felony jury trials then, according to jury coordinator Shirley Marshall.

Under the new system, Marshall said 125 jurors are summoned each week, but the number who actually report is closer to 90 (about 72 percent). Under the old system, 500 jurors were summoned each month but an average of 127 (about 25 percent) showed.

Urbana schools Superintendent Gene Amberg did his first jury service in July and was pleasantly surprised by the experience.

"I really liked the new system. It was so compact and just one week. I was told it used to be two weeks. I thought it was very well-run, very well-organized. That Monday morning when we got there, we watched a video. It seemed like they had their stuff together," he said, adding that by calling a recording each night, he knew if he had to come to the courthouse.

Amberg served on a jury for one day and was called for a second trial but didn't get selected. He didn't pay attention to his paycheck, turning it over to the school district, which covered his wages while he was serving.

"Like education, we're way ahead of many countries. Our jury system is the best in the world," he said.

Dwain Berggren of Urbana served during the first week of the continuous jury term in June and had a similarly positive experience.

"The staff that look after the jurors were really attentive, and given that I served in the first group in June, there were several understandable glitches. Everyone was patient and cheerful," said Berggren, adding it was his impression that many of the jurors called with him actually served.

"I know that the week of service, rather than the older, longer period, was certainly welcomed by everyone. I had served on two juries years before. There were 10 working days when it was very hard to schedule anything else because you just didn't know if you would be off."

But Berggren said that this time the new courthouse was much nicer and convenient and that when talking with fellow jurors, "nobody was complaining.

"You just had a feeling that things were moving along expected channels and promptly," he said.

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