by Sean Summers
Herald Staff Writer
Though public buildings and government functions are slowly starting to re-open services to limited foot traffic, Lake County District Court and Probation proceedings have continued to operate remotely as much as possible.
Without the ability for people to access the courthouse physically, the county has resorted to video conferencing and call-in appointments, saving in-person business as a last resort for people who otherwise would not be able to engage remotely, Lake County Judge Jonathan Shamis said.
In doing so, the court has tried to reach a balance between accessibility and public safety. Part of this balance has meant accommodating people with extra needs or who cannot attend required appearances remotely.
“In some ways we’ve expanded operations,” Shamis said when talking about unconventional measures that the court has adopted. Two examples of such measures include remote hearings in the middle of the night and holding court on weekends.
Shamis said he is trying to replicate regular court as much as possible in all remote business, treating the digital platform just as he would in-person court. The biggest difference he has encountered is interruptions created by unstable connections.
In the majority of cases, the court uses a video client; a minority are done only by voice. Relatively few are being done in person, Shamis said.
Although remote participation has proven to be viable, struggles with isolation, stress and drawn-out proceedings have made meeting court requirements, including terms of probation, difficult for some in Lake County.
Lake County Probation staff transitioned to remote platforms to meet with probationers during the public health shutdown. The staff has seen an increased demand for mental health services for their clients, many of whom are struggling with isolation and financial stress, Wendy Slavin, chief probation officer, said in an email.
There are approximately 200 probation cases in Lake County, and the district has continued to process new clients while operating remotely.
Probation staff are preparing to return to the office and increase safety measures to allow for in-person meetings beginning June 1, Slavin said.
In addition to hearings, the court will have to figure out how to conduct jury trials. All jury trials for the state are postponed until July, but the court is trying to figure out how to safely conduct them after the moratorium has ended.
While judicial districts were able to apply for waivers to allow jury trials to continue, the fifth judicial district, which includes Lake County, did not seek one.
Jurors may be seated throughout the courtroom to allow for greater distance than is available in the jury box, and jury selection may happen remotely, Shamis said.
“My hope is that a lot of those changes are things that can improve how courts operate in the future,” Shamis said, alluding to how the changes made in response to the pandemic may have a lasting impact on the justice system.
One such change Shamis thinks may last is Colorado elimination of cash bonds, a system that requires a payment to get someone out of jail.
In an effort to reduce the number of detainees, courts in Colorado have been issuing more personal-recognizance bonds, which require an appearance in court but no fee for a person’s release.
In recent years, judicial systems in Colorado have been pushing for alternatives to cash bonds, and the results of this shift during the pandemic may prove cash bonds to be an unnecessary system, Shamis said.
While operating remotely, the court is still collecting statutorily required fees that cannot be waived. However, some fees have been waived, partly out of understanding the hardship it may impose on recently unemployed people as a result of the pandemic, Shamis said.