Spending an afternoon in court is usually the last place anyone wants to be - especially on the weekend.
But for those who desire to see justice meted out equitably and efficiently, courtroom B in the Winnebago County Justice Center is exactly where they choose to be.
Since early January, defendants have been making their first court appearance before a judge and "court watchers" on Saturdays.
The court watching program, an initiative of the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice, was created in anticipation of the Jan. 1 implementation of the Pretrial Fairness Act, a state law that does away with practice of cash bail and curtails pretrial incarceration.
Just days before the law was to go into effect, a suit challenging the constitutionality of the law was filed and the law was put on hold until the Illinois Supreme Court rules on the matter, which is expected in the spring.
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However, the court watching program in Winnebago County was still implemented under the direction of the Rev. Violet Johnicker of Rockford Urban Ministries. About dozen people have volunteered to serve as court watchers.
New day in court making an impact
Instead of noting who is being released and who is being granted detention hearings - two key components of Pretrial Fairness Act - the volunteers are tasked with attending the county's new Saturday court and monitoring the court's transition from virtual to in-person court appearances.
"Having Saturday court available is really significant," Johnicker said. "We applaud the county for making that needed, in our opinion, overdue change because we know how detrimental even just a few days in jail can be."
As of Jan. 1, defendants are required by state law to appear before a judge within 48 hours of their arrest.
Also, since the start of the new year, initial court appearances in Winnebago County are being made in person instead of virtually via Zoom.
"The reason we think in-person appearances are better is it's a lot more humanizing," Johnicker said. "There's more opportunity for accused persons to talk with attorneys and public defenders."
Innocent until proven guilty
The Rev. Diane Tomlinson of Emmanuel Episcopal Church is one of about a dozen volunteers from Winnebago County who signed up to be a pretrial court watcher.
"I think it's important for me to see our judicial system working and working well," she said.
Armed with a pen, a data collection form and a copy of the court's docket, Tomlinson recently sat in Judge John Gibbons' courtroom and noted the name, race and gender of the defendants, their charges, whether they had a personal or court-appointed attorney, if bond was given and other general courtroom observations.
"I volunteered because I learned how difficult it can be if someone is incarcerated without the option of getting bail," she said.
She recalled one case where the judge set bond at $5,000 requiring the defendant to pay 10% to be released.
"I thought to myself, "Even $500 for some people is more than they can afford."
Tomlinson, who supports implementation of the Pretrial Fairness Act, said, "I also think it's better to have someone out being a productive citizen. What better way to say to someone 'I believe in you, and you are innocent until proven guilty.'"
Johnicker said data from the court watchers will be shared with the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization that works to "interrupt cycles of poverty, mass incarceration, and racial injustice perpetrated by all aspects of the legal system."
Chris Green: 815-987-1241; firstname.lastname@example.org; @chrisfgreen
This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: Winnebago County court proceedings under scrutiny of "court watchers"