Courthouse confusion for county

The implementation of Illinois’ Pretrial Fairness Act in 2023 and the beginning of the 24th Judicial Circuit this December has created an air of uncertainty for many involved in the Monroe County court system.

“Pretrial fairness” is one of the facets of the Illinois Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today (SAFE-T) Act, which establishes reforms beginning Jan. 1 for three branches of the criminal justice system in Illinois: policing, pretrial services and corrections. 

While the SAFE-T Act’s abolishment of cash bail for many nonviolent offenders has garnered much of the attention of the public and law enforcement community, the bill’s establishment of an Office of Statewide Pretrial Services is of more immediate concern for Monroe County.

Former county probation officer Courtney Schweickhardt, who began her new role as a state employee for the Monroe County region of the OSPS on Monday, addressed the Monroe County Board of Commissioners at its Sept. 6 meeting to seek guidance moving forward.

Schweickhardt’s move to pretrial services officer leaves a vacancy in the county probation department. The board approved a part-time position for Schweickhardt through at least Nov. 30 to continue providing probation services until new county probation personnel can be hired.  

Monroe County Circuit Court Resident Judge Chris Hitzemann was also on hand to explain the county’s unique position. 

He said guidelines for the 24th Judicial Circuit cannot be decided until a chief judge is chosen; however, a chief judge cannot be selected until the official bylaws of the circuit are established, which is not possible until  Dec. 5 when St. Clair County becomes the sole district in the 20th Judicial Circuit and Monroe, Randolph, Perry and Washington counties will form the new 24th circuit.

Hitzemann continued by saying the chief judge will then decide how internal departments should function – including potential additions to the number of associate judge positions – leaving many involved in the four county courts in a precarious position.  

Until that time, many decisions for Monroe County court – including office space for Schweickhardt and the new probation personnel at the courthouse – remain up in the air.

“All the work we have been trying to do ahead of time to be in the best possible place by Dec. 5 has been brushed to the side,” Hitzemann said, adding there is much “uncertainty” and “frustration” especially regarding probation services in the counties of the new 24th circuit.

Monroe County State’s Attorney Lucas Liefer, whose office works closely with the probation department, told the Republic-Times he is “anticipating some challenges.”

“The institution of the new circuit may cause some uncertainty with the structure of the probation department for a few days in early December, but should be resolved and operating smoothly prior to the end of the year,” Liefer said.

He explained Schweickhardt’s role in pretrial services will primarily involve navigating the logistics of no cash bail beginning in January.

“To say that I am disappointed in the legislature and Governor (JB Pritzker) is an understatement, not just for the passing of the SAFE-T Act, but the lack of openness to resolve some of the clear inconsistencies and shortcomings of the act that have been voiced by so many throughout all levels of law enforcement,” Liefer continued, adding he is “legitimately concerned about the rise of criminal behavior that is sure to follow after the beginning of the year and will do everything I can to meet head-on those who wish to take advantage of our state government’s short sighted and careless actions.”

One aspect Liefer is not concerned with is the ongoing collaboration among the county’s criminal justice community.

“We all work well together around here and I don’t expect that to change,” he concluded.

Monroe County Sheriff Neal Rohlfing, who has been a vocal opponent of the SAFE-T Act, addressed the board with a different concern.

In what he described as a “complete disaster” resulting from supply chain issues and other factors,  Rohlfing’s department has found itself in another bind after GM canceled one MCSD order for a new vehicle.

While Rohlfing has hopes three other vehicle orders will not be canceled, he said he did not want the Chevrolet Tahoes currently in use to exceed 150,000 miles, but some are approaching the 200,000-mile mark.

Rohlfing said a Lou Fusz dealership in St. Louis claims to have vehicles available, but to make an order would require the ability to make an offer in a timely manner in what has become a competitive market. He noted departments as far away as the Pacific Northwest have contacted the dealership.

Commissioners voted to temporarily suspend the county’s policy requiring a “competitive bid” process for sheriff’s department vehicles pending further action by the board. 

While the board would still approve any expenditures, the move gives Rohlfing discretion to act more quickly to acquire vehicles when they become available.

Similarly, Monroe County Ambulance Director Carla Heise told commissioners new ambulances would not be available for almost three years. The commissioners advised Heise to request funds for her department’s upcoming fiscal year budget in order to have funds available to order new vehicles when the opportunity arises.

Budget hearings for the Fiscal Year 2023 budget cycle took place Tuesday and Wednesday at the courthouse.

Heise also presented a request to adjust funding for overtime incurred by Monroe County EMS due to a lack of staff. She estimated the overage for the rest of the current budget would be between $75,000 and $100,000. 

Heise thanked EMS personnel for taking extra shifts and working overtime to ensure available services for Monroe County residents.

In other business, commissioners approved a request by Monroe County Engineer Aaron Metzger for an additional $175,000 to include the area of Maeystown bypass in the asphalt shoulder construction in progress on Maeystown Road from the Waterloo city limits to the northernmost Mill Street intersection in Maeystown.

Metzger also announced that a posted speed limit will be introduced on EE Road approaching Gilmore Lake Road. 

Due to the unusual layout of the roads’ intersections and the results of a speed study recently completed in the area, a speed limit of 35 miles per hour will be posted on EE Road as motorists approach the Gilmore Lake Road intersection. No additional stop signs will be installed.

Metzger also informed commissioners he expects the Illinois Department of Transportation to award grant funding for projects within the coming weeks. One project in consideration is a proposal to install restricted-crossing U-turns at two intersections on Route 3 between Waterloo and Columbia.

The next Monroe County Board meeting takes place at 8:15 a.m. Monday, Sept. 19, at the Monroe County Courthouse in Waterloo.

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Scott Woodsmall

HTC web