QA: Judge Eckert highlights drug court, an overcrowded jail and courthouse innovations
Editor's note: St. Clair County Circuit Court Judge Annette Eckert, who presides over a criminal docket, offers perspective and a glimpse of how she handles courthouse matters as The Record continues its discussion with judges in the 20th Circuit.
Q: On the premise that people living in poorer counties are at a disadvantage in the state’s judicial system, Illinois Judges Association President Judge James Wexstten is proposing total funding for state courts. From what you can tell, do budgetary constraints ever impact the administration of justice in St. Clair County?
A: Budgetary constraints affect the administration of justice. The judiciary in St. Clair County recognizes its duty to fairly and impartially administer justice and to properly and efficiently utilize the taxpayer dollars entrusted to us.
Recently we changed our system of summoning jurors to an on-call system, reducing juror inconvenience and courthouse expenses. We have instituted programs which ensure that defendants pay court fines and court costs.
Q: How would state funding of trial courts be beneficial for St. Clair County?
A: I first learned of Judge Wexstten's proposal in the Sept. 12 edition of The Record. Since then, I have made an effort to become informed about it. However, I have not had the opportunity to thoroughly consider the proposal and believe that it would be premature for me to make public comment.
Q: You preside over a felony docket, handling, among other things, domestic violence and criminal sexual assault cases involving children. Because it’s your job, you encounter despicable, heinous crimes. Are you tough?
A: Sentencing is one of the most difficult jobs that a criminal court judge must perform. The statutes provide us with sentencing guidelines and tell us what factors we should consider in aggravation and mitigation. The judge still exercises discretion in sentencing with these guidelines.
In each case I try in accordance with the law to provide a just sentence that considers the victim, the defendant and the safety of society.
Q: On average, is the justice system in St. Clair County keeping pace with crime?
A: The felony criminal court dockets in St. Clair County are keeping pace with criminal filings. In the first six months of 2005, 1,051 cases were filed in St. Clair County and 1,154 were disposed of by the felony division during that same period of time.
Q: Are there adequate jail cells to protect the public from violent offenders?
A: Adequate space is consistently a concern at the St. Clair County jail. Virtually every metropolitan jail in the country has experienced these problems. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, our capacity at the jail is approximately 350 inmates.
On a consistent basis we house between 450 and 500 inmates. The judiciary has initiated dockets to move cases and deal with petty and non violent offenders on an expeditious basis to relieve this congestion. Also, persons picked up on warrants for non violent offenses are handled as quickly as possible.
The judiciary also holds court at the St. Clair County jail on Saturdays.
St. Clair County was also the first county to use video arraignments and bond reduction hearings. This provides safety for the public and correctional officers by maintaining the prisoners at the jail rather than transporting them to the courthouse for hearings.
We continue to work on other methods to address these issues. The public can be assured that the judiciary takes its safety very seriously.
Q: St. Clair County is in the process of developing a drug court. Explain the reason for its implementation. How will it operate and how are plans shaping up?
A: Because of the growing number of drug cases that are in our courts in St. Clair County, the judiciary is interested in developing a drug court. A committee has been established to research information to help us develop a successful drug court.
The purpose of the drug court is to assist drug offenders to become drug free and make our communities safer. The drug court committee continues to have regular meetings and anticipates receiving a grant that will enable us to launch the drug court in 2006.
Q: If local press is doing an inadequate job of covering local courts, what would you recommend the media do better?
A: Judges are problem solvers. In addition to presiding over hearings in court, we develop court programs to assist litigants and make our courts run more smoothly. Examples of initiatives in St. Clair County are the drug court, the St. Clair County Visit Exchange Center and the Children First program.
Reporting this role to the public would be of assistance to your readers as well as the administration of justice.
In addition, people may not realize that judges are ethically bound from discussing certain cases or issues. This question-and-answer format in your paper allows the judiciary to share information about the courts which can help the public understand the role of the judiciary and how it operates.
Q: Can you provide a courtroom anecdote in which you have either been uplifted, humbled, surprised or saddened?
A: No one court room anecdote can adequately express what I experience in the felony courtroom each day. Each day I sincerely hope that the work I do makes a difference in someone's life.
Each day I am consistently uplifted, saddened, humbled, surprised and challenged. My job is never dull.
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Illinois Department of Corrections
1301 Concordia Ct
Springfield, IL 62702