By Marcia M. Meis, Director, Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts
With new variants and the resultant increase of COVID cases (yet again), I have been reflecting on the blur of events these past two and half years and, in particular, where we in the Illinois courts found ourselves - in terms of technology - back in March 2020.
The Administrative Office of Illinois Courts, fortuitously, had just completed a computer refresh that put hundreds of laptops into service for the first time. With the shelter in place order and many court personnel beginning to work remotely, we immediately focused on expanding remote capabilities, particularly the rapid issuance of Zoom accounts. This made remote proceedings and meetings possible and allowed our court system to continue functioning in the early days of the pandemic. Hence the first steps of transformative change in the way our court system works.
Chief Justice Anne M. Burke’s Listening Tour in partnership with the Illinois State Bar Association was fascinating on many fronts, but one of its important benefits was bringing to the forefront the technology challenges facing courthouses across the state. Some counties reported that they had no or inadequate Wi-Fi, some needed Zoom capabilities in the courtroom and some needed digital signage to help court users find where they needed to go. To say the least, the technological capabilities of our courts varied greatly from county to county.
The Supreme Court took these challenges to heart and approved the AOIC’s Technology Modernization Grant Program that ended last month. Funds for the program were allocated to the Illinois Courts by the Legislature from our state’s portion of the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
To manage this large and complicated project, the AOIC partnered with the firm Guidehouse in a two-phase approach. Phase one was the completion of a circuit-wide technology assessment with judicial personnel, partners, and stakeholders for each county discussing the specific technology needs, deficiencies, and requirements pursuant to the updated Supreme Court Minimum Courtroom Standards. Phase two began with the counties submitting their funding requests and required documents to the AOIC for review, approval, and processing. The process was completed with the county securing the approved goods and/or services.
I am pleased to report that – thanks to the collaborative efforts of AOIC staff, circuit court and county IT staff and Guidehouse – the Technology Modernization Grant Program has been a huge success. To date, $13.5 million has been allocated to 98 counties – close to 100% participation in a state as large and diverse as Illinois is something to be celebrated.
Here are just a few examples of how the funds are being used:
- Piatt County received $93,550.65 for several items, including a rolling docket cart to display all cases for each day, including the time of the hearing and the courtroom in which cases are set. The grant will also fund at least one Access to Justice Station for Self-Represented Litigants, sound amplification and recording systems for both courtrooms, video arraignment equipment and Zoom capabilities for the courtrooms.
- Kendall County received a $237,000 grant to make the courthouse more accessible. It will also be used for a digital kiosk to allow people to check in for traffic court so their cases can be handled more quickly. Additionally, funds will be used to equip courtrooms to allow more remote appearances.
- Vermilion County received just over $300,000 for enhanced sound systems, improved internet connectivity, and a system of computers and monitors (at counsel tables, the bench, the witness chair, and jury box) for the presentation of electronic evidence.
Appreciation for the program was well summed up by 5th
Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Thomas M. O’Shaughnessy of Vermilion County: “The Supreme Court of Illinois and its Administrative Office have done an exceptional job in identifying the courts’ need to embrace technology as a means of maintaining court access, while making funds available to the courts to meet those needs. This funding allows us to complete the technology upgrades to the Courthouse systems which began during the early days of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic when equipment for remote hearings was acquired. That equipment permitted access to the court during the suspension of in-person hearings. These newest upgrades will greatly improve the trial capacities and environment of our jury courtrooms.”
As Chief Justice Burke has often said, the COVID-19 pandemic was not the crisis we wanted but, in some ways, has been the crisis we needed to move our court capabilities into the 21st Century. This program has been a shining example of different entities coming together to improve our justice system. I offer a heartfelt thank you and congratulations to everyone who made it a success.