Lyons: System still needs some work

DeWayne Bartels

Peoria County State’s Attorney Kevin Lyons sees improvement in the local court system.

He said these improvements have been a long time coming. Lyons said he lobbied for years for some of the changes now taking place.

Additional courtrooms, handling high-traffic case loads, opened in recent months.

More public defenders are in the courtrooms.

Criminal and traffic court case loads are falling.

But that is not enough to make Lyons smile.

He still sees a list of issues to be addressed in Peoria County’s court system, and some of them are issues he cannot change alone.

A couple of those issues involve judges. Lyons can suggest, but not order, judges to alter their procedures. 

“If there’s a deficit in the system we’re encountering now, it’s that with more time, we fill it,” Lyons said, recently.

“With some judges, whether they have five cases or 50 cases, they will fill the time and be done at 5 p.m.”

Lyons said another problem arising in some courtrooms — now that the case load is falling and judges have more time to spend on an individual case — is a desire to “help” people.

“Sometimes the courtroom is not where to cure the drunk, but to give consequences,” he said.

Lyons shook his head.

He said the court system is still bogged down in his view because of many cases that just keep dragging on.

“We have a propensity to do a cookie-cutter type of justice ... What that means is we have to touch that piece of paper with a defendant’s name on it over and over,” Lyons said.

“Every time you have to touch that piece of paper, it fills the docket. We need smoothly running courts. Our courts are not full of new crimes.”

He said while everyone in the court system talks about the need for time lines to move cases forward, they do not push the concept.

“They don’t mean it. You can’t push all the cases through the pipeline every day,” Lyons said.

“A lot of things in the system throw grenades into the works. If I had my wish, I would have an equal number of public defenders and prosecutors in every courtroom. The public defenders have to have contact with every defendant not represented by private counsel.”

In the high-volume courtrooms, while judges can quickly go through a smaller docket, the system bogs down if there is only one public defender.

The county recently added two more public defenders, but the system is still slowed because of a lack of public defenders.

“The system is bigger than all of us,” Lyons said.

“We should not let it be taken down by having only one prosecutor or public defender in a courtroom. Public defenders have to learn how to move cases through a courtroom. The courts that need the most grease have the least experienced public defenders.”

Lyons said while there are more people moving through the system and fewer of them are smiling than before, it is numbers, not countenances, that merit attention.

“Courts are designed in levels of consequence. Not everyone leaving traffic court should leave feeling the experience was horrible, or even bad,” Lyons said.

“Not everyone should leave the courtroom with dark thoughts about the justice system. The truth is, the jails are for those who deserve it, not everyone who breaks the law.”

That led Lyons to something he sees as a positive change.

He said there has been real progress in domestic battery court to get away from the cookie-cutter mentality he  spoke against earlier. He said not every domestic battery case is the same.

Lyons said a case which involves a man pulling his arm away from a loved one during an argument, causing the victim to lose their balance and fall, does not have to be treated the same as the husband who hits his wife repeatedly in the face with his fist.

He said that realization has finally come to light in Peoria County.

“There was a time in domestic battery court where every person appearing there had to have treatment,” he said.

“Now, we’ve learned to triage it.”