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Digital court hearings cause uneasiness for young offenders

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Thursday, February 29, 2024   

Online conferencing was a lifeline for school lessons and business meetings during the pandemic. However, there is concern about the effects of virtual court hearings on Illinois' juvenile offenders.

The "Justice For Children Policy Brief" said minors reported feeling frustrated and anxious during their hearings because they could not understand court procedures. They also said there was a lack of privacy when speaking with their attorneys.

Angie Vigil, a Miami-based attorney specializing in children's rights, opposes digital proceedings for any substantive hearings for children.

"Judges are people and decision-makers are people and when you're in the presence of other people, you make a humanity-based decision," Vigil argued. "When you're looking at a screen you might not make as much of a humanity-based decision."

In 2022, the Illinois House of Representatives passed House Resolution 616, urging the Illinois Supreme Court to require courts to responsibly transition juvenile delinquency proceedings back to in-person hearings, with priority given to those hearings where the interests of liberty are at stake.

Supporters of virtual hearings pointed to no commute time, traffic jams, or courthouse parking fees as reasons to keep them. Parents who rely on public transportation or worry about missing work can just sign on to attend their child's case. Vigil noted a family law attorney often juggles many foster care, child welfare, and juvenile offender cases, and said virtual hearings can ease their workload.

"They are spending less time sitting in court waiting for their cases to be called and more time out in the community meeting the needs of kids," Vigil contended. "It sounds like I'm saying efficiency, but I'm actually talking about more work done for all of the children."

Vigil called the current status of digital hearings a mixed bag. Some courts have returned to in-person proceedings, others use technology for some, but not all, cases. Still other courtrooms use virtual meetings if all involved parties agree. According to the policy brief report, digital hearings will continue to thrive because of funding constraints.

Disclosure: The Juvenile Justice Initiative contributes to our fund for reporting on Children's Issues, Civic Engagement, Criminal Justice, and Juvenile Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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