Chief Justice Susan Christensen focused her annual address on the Status of the Judiciary on the COVID-19 pandemic – how the courts have adapted and what changes would remain in place for the foreseeable future.
It was a marked difference from Governor Kim Reynolds State of the State Address, where the pandemic was only mentioned in passing.
“COVID has had a brutal and brutal impact on the justice system… Another year has now passed. What’s different? ”Christensen said in prepared remarks.“ Not only has everyone in the judiciary become very good at handling the daily challenges that have almost thrown us under the bus, but we have become more and more strong. “
The Iowa Supreme Court convened a lessons learned task force in April to assess changes in the COVID era and decide which ones should stay.
In December, the judiciary decided to continue allowing defendants to attend certain proceedings and convictions at a distance. Juvenile courts and some family law cases can also use video conferencing. Christensen also highlighted federal funding for the CARES Act which has provided “almost every” courthouse in Iowa with new technology for video conferencing and better audio and visual support in the courtroom.
“The benefits of this technology made available with funding from CARES will be used by all counties and certainly beyond COVID,” Christensen said.
Reflecting more broadly on the pandemic, Christensen said the judiciary “remains open for business” and the daily onslaught of challenges makes it better.
Christensen touts “4 questions” program and promises more work on juvenile justice
Christensen also praised the judiciary’s work on juvenile justice over the past year. She highlighted the “4 questions, 7 judges” program – a series of four questions that a judge asks social workers before deciding to remove a child from their family.
The pilot program began in 2020, with seven judges asking the questions. It rose in 2021 to 34 judges, or more than half of the judges on the juvenile bench in Iowa.
“The 4 Questions, 7 Judges program has moved from pilot status to statewide implementation based on its proven effectiveness in reducing deletions by almost half,” she said. declared.
Christensen expected the program to continue to expand, with the same set of questions asked at multiple points during the process of removing or returning a child to their home. Other states have also asked to launch their own “4 questions” pilot project, she said.
Christensen thanked the Department of Human Services for proposing changes to the code to comply with Family First, a federal program to promote counseling, addiction treatment, and mental health programs that prevent the removal of children from their homes, when possible.
Looking ahead, Christensen noted that the Iowa juvenile justice system is divided into two: child protection cases, where a court assesses whether a minor should be removed from a dangerous situation, and delinquency cases, where a court responds to a child’s criminal actions. .
“Often children live in these two worlds where the child’s parents cannot provide a safe home and the child has acted in a way that has resulted in criminal charges being laid,” Christensen said.
Several state departments deal with juvenile justice matters, including the Department of Human Rights, the Department of Social Services, and the Department of Public Health. Christensen said the actions of a department often cause “unintentional ripples” through the complex system.
The Iowa Supreme Court created a task force to analyze and streamline the system, including addressing racial and gender disparities within the system. Christensen said the task force, which includes several lawmakers, will release a full report in November.
Christensen mentioned several other upcoming changes, including:
- A proposal to change the rules of criminal proceedings, coming this month
- Best educational program for judges and judiciary employees, including learning about race and disproportionality
- New working group on the appeal process
- New Evidence Working Group
The judicial branch has requested a 6.76% funding increase for the coming fiscal year, with plans to hire four new associate district judges and 10 staff.