Fewer smiles and passes in courtrooms

DeWayne Bartels

Peoria County Traffic Court Judge Rebecca Steenrod glanced up from the file in front of her at the large video screen in her courtroom.

Steenrod was in the middle of a first court appearance for Steven Partner, being held at the Peoria County Jail, on a charge of failure to appear in court on drug charges.

It was 9 a.m. June 10.

Steenrod asked Partner why he had missed court.

Steenrod got a shrug of Partner’s shoulders as a reply.

As she began telling Partner his bond would be set at $10,000, Partner interrupted her.

“I remember now why I didn’t make it to court,” he said. “I lost my only son that day. That’s why I missed it.”

Steenrod looked down and shook her head.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, looking up. “It’s still $10,000. I’ll see you next Wednesday.”

The screen went blank.

Lyons vindicated

Anyone familiar with Steenrod’s management of her courtroom would not be surprised at how quickly things move there. But, these days, it is not just in Steenrod’s DUI courtroom that cases are moving quickly.

Cases are moving more quickly today in Peoria County’s high-volume courtrooms — primarily traffic and misdemeanor — than they have for years.

In 2005, the Peoria Times-Observer spent months looking at the court system. The conclusion was that the system was a mess.

The investigation revealed judges in traffic court on some days had a docket exceeding 800 cases. Some defendants, who had grown wise to the system, had cases dating back years.

One man had more than 20 suspended driving cases, some dating back five years, because he asked for a jury trial each time.

On jury trial day, there were usually 40 or more cases on the docket. Only one could be tried a day. 

Many of those who saw the information uncovered — including then chief judge John Barra — said the system was “broken.”

Shortly after the Times-Observer investigation, Peoria County administrator Patrick Urich announced the county would embark on a multi-million dollar technology project to modernize the courtrooms.

But, courthouse veteran Peoria County State’s Attorney Kevin Lyons was skeptical that technology alone could get the job done.

Lyons said the solution lay in opening more traffic and misdemeanor courtrooms.

But, no forward movement on Lyon’s ideas emerged.

Lyons said he lobbied for years to get courtrooms sitting idle during the day to be utilized to move the process along. He said more assistant state’s attorneys and public defenders would be needed. He also said some judges would have to step up and help relieve the load.

That is where Peoria County Judge James Shadid entered the picture. Shadid, after being appointed a judge, asked for misdemeanor court.

He began speeding up the process with the help of Judge Stephen Kouri, former Chief Judge Rick Grawey and current Chief Judge Stuart Borden. Three years later, Lyons sees his suggestions put into place, and the backlog in cases moving faster.

Today, traffic court is split into two courtrooms. One specializes in DUI cases. There are now also two misdemeanor courtrooms. One specializes in domestic battery cases.

According to Shadid, the re-organization is still on-going.

“What we’ve done is reduce case loads,” Shadid said.

Shadid has seen the numbers fall because he instituted a stricter line on attorneys and defendants to get cases resolved. Plea bargains rose and case loads fell.

Fewer smiles

In 2005, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis said it was obvious why defendants were leaving the courthouse smiling.

“There are no consequences,” Ardis said.

Defendants routinely left traffic and misdemeanor court smiling because they saw fines that were nowhere near the maximum for their crime, or because they saw their case set months out for adjudication.

There are far fewer smiles in Peoria County’s traffic and misdemeanor courtrooms today. Leslie Skillstead is an example. On June 10, he  stormed out of Judge Glenn Collier's  courtroom.

Collier had called his name just a moment before. Collier informed Skillstead the state wanted to revoke his probation on a sex charge.

“This is over some bulls***,” Skillstead said.

“I don’t have the money to pay off everything and support my wife and kids.”

“You have a wife and kids?” Collier said, his eyebrows raised. 

Skillstead nodded. Collier set a date for another hearing.

“F*** everyone in this courtroom,” Skillstead said as he stormed out of the courtroom.

Collier smiled. 

Shadid is smiling also.

He has seen 1,200 misdemeanor cases resolved in five months.

The time line for resolving cases in misdemeanor court has fallen from eight months to 90 days.

“We’re getting them done,” Shadid said to the members of the Neighborhood Alliance during their June meeting.

“People who shouldn’t be out on the streets aren’t on the streets. My job is to manage the courtroom and to manage the law. Our courtrooms are now getting the job done.”

He said of 515 felony cases resolved in the first half of the year, 260 resulted in prison sentences. Of course, he said, plea bargains are part of making that happen. 

He said earlier this year he handled a gun case in which a 15-year-old was shot in the stomach by a 17-year-old.

The victim would not go to court to testify. He was arrested for contempt.

Still, he refused to testify.

“Maybe his life was in jeopardy. The state’s attorney did not want to drop the case. I approved a plea agreement of 48 months probation for the shooter. I put my stamp of approval on it,” Shadid said.

“Will I catch flack for it? Sure. But, numbers are one thing. Each day in that courtroom is the real thing.”