CHICAGO (CBS) — Jury trials are set to return to the Daley Center in Cook County next week.
CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov spoke exclusively with Chief Judge Tim Evans about precautions now in place.READ MORE: Families Hold Unity Rally To Remember Loved Ones Lost To Gun Violence
There are many changes to the courtrooms and some lingering issues in the court system. One of them is getting caught up on all of the cases delayed when jury trials were halted.
A post pandemic Daley Center courtroom looks nothing like it did before the pandemic.
Evans said these changes are not just about COVID-19 safety but also about reassuring the public that precautions are in place as the first Daley Center jury trial is set to get underway May 10.
“We believe we’re at a point right now where we can safely have those jury cases go forward,” he said.
Evans said four trials are already underway at other Cook County courthouses with similar safety measures in place.
“Nobody is within six feet of anybody else,” he said.READ MORE: Woman Questions COVID-19 Clinic After Receiving Results Before Testing
Benches were removed and replaced with socially distanced chairs where jurors will now sit. Clear plastic dividers now separate the judge, clerk, witnesses, attorneys and clients. Members of the public will now sit in socially distanced overflow rooms. All proceedings will be hooked up to microphones and speakers, so everyone can hear.
But just how hard did the pandemic hit the court caseload?
“We were never closed. Never,” Evans said.
But last July, some civil attorneys told CBS 2 that cases in certain divisions were at a virtual standstill — delayed for almost a year.
Evans acknowledged a backlog, pointing out the number of cases coming into the court system dropped, but so did the case clearance rate, which is when cases are settled or closed. For example in the year prior to the pandemic, the felony case clearance rate was 98%. In the last year it dropped to 82%. The clearance rate in the civil law division dropped from 92% to 69%.
“It’s wrong for people to think we were not conducting hearings. We were,” said Evans.
Evans said there will only be one trial per week per courthouse until more restrictions are lifted, and if all goes well he expects the court system will be caught up by Labor Day.MORE NEWS: 4 Dead, 25 Wounded In Weekend Shootings In Chicago
Evans’ staff is still calculating how much these changes cost taxpayers, but it is more than $64,000 for seven courtrooms so far. Those costs will grow as more and more courtrooms are retrofitted. Evans said Cares Act money paid for most of the modifications so far.