New judicial circuit created

Pictured in teal are the four counties of the new Illinois 24th Judicial Circuit: Monroe, Randolph, Perry and Washington. The circuit was officially established Monday.

Most counties in Illinois have been preparing for implementation of the SAFE-T Act at the beginning of 2023, with many trying to anticipate challenges courts and jails will face when the state removes its cash bail system.

Courts in four counties – including Monroe – experienced an extra setback as they were not able to begin official preparations until Monday, when bylaws for the new 24th Judicial Circuit were formally adopted.

This new circuit is the result of legislation passed in August 2021. The bill put St. Clair County by itself as the 20th Circuit while Monroe, Randolph, Perry and Washington counties were looped into an entirely new circuit. 

As Monroe County Resident Circuit Judge Chris Hitzemann explained during a September meeting of the Monroe County Board, guidelines for the new circuit could not be decided until a chief judge was appointed on Dec. 5.

Part of those guidelines dictate county probation operations in conjunction with the new office of pretrial services – a state-funded position required in each county to facilitate pretrial release when the cash bail system is eliminated in Illinois.   

Prior to Monday, Hitzemann told the Republic-Times that Associate Judge Gene Gross was asked to assist with developing the rules ahead of time. 

Gross assembled a task force of attorneys from the four counties – one of which was retired Monroe County Resident Circuit Judge Dennis Doyle. The attorneys met several times to amend and revise proposed rules before sending them to the local bar associations for review and comment.

With the structure of the new district mostly determined beforehand, judges from the four counties were able to get down to business when they met in Chester on Monday.

Hitzemann described the process. First, recently elected Randolph County Resident Circuit Judge Jeremy Walker was sworn in, followed by a re-swearing in of existing resident judges as part of the 24th Circuit. 

Afterward, judges elected Washington County Judge Daniel Emge as the new circuit’s chief judge. Emge then appointed Hitzemann as assistant chief judge for the circuit.

Gross was then sworn in as an associate judge and public defenders were appointed to the four counties. Arthur Morris will continue in that role for Monroe County.

Emge then signed agreed-upon general administrative orders for the counties. Most of the orders establish administrative functions or grant specific authorizations for the judges.

Hitzemann said probation was the topic of most discussions.

“The circuit judges have met on numerous occasions over the past year in coming to this decision,” Hitzemann began. “Our probation departments will run independent of each other, with a case managing officer in each county as well as any additional probation officers and support staff that are assigned to us by the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts.”

For Monroe County, that means one additional probation officer.

Courtney Schweickhardt, who had previously accepted the position of pretrial services officer while still assisting with the Monroe  County Probation Department, has since accepted a role as chief managing officer for probation in Monroe County.

With Schweickhardt taking this position, a new pretrial services officer will need to be assigned to Monroe County.

The judges also discussed use of $725,000 in probation funding leftover from the former 20th Circuit.

“These monies are special funds that can only be used for approved expenses related to probation and to cover salary shortfalls in the event the State of Illinois does not reimburse probation salaries at 100 percent – which they currently do,” Hitzemann explained.

The judges also discussed how to use technology funds received by Monroe County last year. 

Hitzemann said Monroe County was awarded a “significant amount of money through (a) grant to upgrade our courtrooms thanks to (Monroe County) Circuit Clerk Lisa Fallon’s assistance,” adding the “discussion is required because the funding request is required to be sent in by the circuit as a whole.” 

While most of the heavy lifting was accomplished Monday, there is still work to do. 

The new circuit will eventually elect two additional associate judges. Once the vacancies are posted, attorneys will have 30 days to apply for these judgeships. After 30 days, the circuit judges will then vote until two candidates are elected.

Hitzmann anticipates the new associate judges will be sworn in sometime this coming February.

Despite cash bail being abolished starting Jan. 1, the judges on Monday also approved regulations for bail procedures in the new circuit.

Hitzemann confirmed the move is to continue the bail system through the remaining four weeks of December as well as having an established system should the cash bail system be reinstated in Illinois. 

With bylaws passed and probation and pretrial services in the 24th Circuit mostly finalized, court officials in the four counties may now focus on how to best handle uncertainty facing the Illinois court system in January.

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Scott Woodsmall

HTC web