St. Louis Circuit Court Innovates To Overcome Pandemic Setback

As with most institutions, the St. Louis Circuit Court experienced service setbacks and unexpected challenges with the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly a year ago. But unlike some other institutions that were already driven by technology and innovation, the Court had to build many of its solutions from scratch.

Two areas of the Court exemplify the rapid response and adaptation that have kept proceedings largely on track: the Juvenile Court and the Treatment Courts.

Treatment Courts are special dockets in the court system designed to offer substance abuse treatment, combined with supervision and judicial oversight to provide non-violent substance abusers the tools they need to change their lives and avoid incarceration. They involve highly collaborative efforts of the Court, Circuit Attorney, Department of Corrections Probation and Parole, defense lawyers, community treatment providers, Sheriff’s Department, Children’s Division, community workers and volunteers. The original Drug Court for adults in the criminal justice system, has branched into separate treatment programs for parents with addiction issues, and veteran’s faced with criminal charges.

The explosive impact of the pandemic initially was a shock to the homegrown Treatment Court system. At the same time, the criminal justice system’s need for alternatives to incarceration spiked as officials sought to avoid having the virus spread in detention facilities.

Rochelle M. Woodiest, Treatment Courts commissioner, said, “We are back on track. Through it all, we have continued to graduate participants who successfully complete the program, although the ceremonies are virtual now.”

She said the Courts quickly developed a system of virtual check-in hearings, notifying defense attorneys and prosecutors of the time and internet links that Court officers need to speak with participants.

The Courts also make use of WebEx video for recovery meetings, and participants can meet with their counselors by video or over the phone. Its screenings for admission to the program are held virtually and involve interviews to determine a candidate’s potential to succeed.

To be considered for admission, defendants ask a judge at a bond or detention hearing. Commissioner Woodiest noted that overall admissions had declined somewhat because fewer cases overall are moving through the system during the pandemic.

Some aspects of Treatment Courts still rely on in-person interactions. Participants are still required to undergo random urine checks and meet regularly with their probation officers. The officers often conduct these meetings in the field, meeting defendants at neutral sites or at their offices, but they also conduct home visits.

And after establishing COVID safety protocols, the Courts have resumed working with various community agencies who have residential beds available for addiction treatment.

In the Juvenile Court, timeliness for many processes is dictated by state regulations.

Steven Ohmer, chief judge of the Juvenile and Family Court, said, “We have had brief interruptions related to the pandemic, especially in the early days. But we got back on schedule quickly once we adopted new technologies.”

Each of three original courtrooms in the Juvenile and Family Courts facility at 920 N. Vandeventer Ave. have been set up for virtual hearings.

“For hearings that must be in-person, we adapted another space for a fourth courtroom big enough for social distancing,” Judge Ohmer said.

In addition, the Court set up a small room equipped for WebEx as a way for people to attend video hearings if a courtroom is too full for social distancing. “If people lack a home computer or smartphone, they may come to our facility and use our WebEx equipped room,” he said.

While the pandemic has brought many new variables, the demand for virtual capabilities has remained high. “We have approximately 200 child protection hearings per month in cases related to abuse and neglect,” he noted. “These extra efforts have kept us timely over the long run of the pandemic.”