WOODSTOCK – Starting in April, hundreds of misdemeanor domestic violence cases filed in McHenry County each year will be handled in a special court designed to move them along more quickly and get more offenders complying with the terms of their sentences.
“We’re reinventing the way that we’re handling these cases, from start to finish,” said Dan Wallis, court administrator for the 22nd Judicial Circuit serving McHenry County. “And by start to finish, I’m talking from once the case initially comes before the court until the case is terminated on the release date.”
Last year, 610 domestic violence cases were filed in McHenry County court. The majority – 504 cases – were misdemeanors.
As of April 8, those misdemeanor cases will be taken off the regular call and instead be sent to Judge Charles Weech.
“It’s going to be expected that these cases will be disposed of within six months of the date of filing,” Wallis said. “We want to ensure the rights of due process. We do not want to ensure more process than what’s due.”
One way to accomplish that goal will be automatically scheduled case management conferences, compelling prosecutors and defense attorneys to talk about the case sooner.
What typically happens is that a defense attorney will have his client plead not guilty and demand a trial, which then is scheduled four months away, Weech said.
In the meantime, no progress is made.
“For four months, nothing is done on the file until the Monday night before a Tuesday trial,” Weech said.
Chances are, that case isn’t going to trial anyway.
Less than half a percent of misdemeanor domestic violence cases go before a jury, and only about 3 percent end with a bench trial.
That means more than 95 percent of cases are resolved through a negotiated plea. Wallis said court officials want to resolve them sooner.
Weech also will have more input into those plea deals because a treatment evaluation is needed ahead of time rather than after the plea deal goes through.
“Due to the number of cases the judges are handling, they really weren’t part of the negotiated plea process,” Weech said. “Attorneys would come to us with negotiated pleas, and we didn’t have the information to properly sentence them.”
With an evaluation that outlines appropriate treatment, the judge can spot red flags, he said.
“We were putting through negotiated pleas that, quite frankly, shouldn’t have been put through,” Weech said. “Now we’re going to have the power to say, ‘You know what, I understand your negotiated plea, but I think there needs to be additional requirements.’ “
Additional oversight to make sure those requirements are met is another plan for domestic violence court.
A recent sampling of defendants showed that nearly 75 percent of those sentenced to supervision were noncompliant. That may include not attending counseling or alcohol treatment.
“When someone is granted supervision or conditional discharge, this person goes on their way,” Wallis said. “It’s up to them to do what the court has ordered, and they’re given a court date a year out.”
But many of them don’t do what was ordered.
“Now we see the defendant a year later and he or she has done nothing, or only a portion of the classes,” Weech said. “So have we really made an effect? Have we really gotten this person the appropriate treatment so we can stop the recidivism? Probably not.”
By requiring the offender to come back to court 60 days later, the judge can see whether his orders are being followed and impose sanctions if necessary.
“The goal is to bring about compliance,” Wallis said. “We want people to get treatment or counseling or whatever they need.”
By the numbers
Domestic violence cases in the county by year:
Source: 22nd Judicial Circuit court administration