April 23, 2024
Crime & Courts | Northwest Herald

Crime & Courts

McHenry County courts avoiding lack of court reporters with technology

Computerized recording system streamlines service

WOODSTOCK – An early embrace of recording technology helped McHenry County’s courts avoid the court reporter shortage that is hamstringing other judicial circuits.

A number of Illinois’ downstate judicial circuits have had problems filling vacancies because of salary issues and a lack of available licensed court reporters. But although McHenry County’s 22nd Judicial Circuit has more court reporters to draw from, it also needs far fewer of them because of an early decision to equip courtrooms with sophisticated computerized recording systems, Court Administrator Dan Wallis said.

“We’ve used technology to streamline the process and are much more efficient, so we’re able to provide more services, and better services, using fewer people,” Wallis said.

All but one of the circuit’s 18 courtrooms have built-in recording systems, which record everything said to hard drives with backups. Signs in the courtrooms warn that all conversations are being recorded.

While the two felony courtrooms always have a court reporter typing the proceedings so immediate access to a transcript can be obtained if needed, recording less serious proceedings cuts down on time and staff. Reporters instead can transcribe specific parts if requested by the judge or legal counsel.

The system allows McHenry County, which like other collar counties and Cook County has its own judicial circuit, to efficiently operate with a staff of seven court reporters and an electronic recording officer.

“Rather than transcribing everything or taking the stenography, we’re able to identify requests made for what has to be transcribed,” Wallis said.

It’s a system other circuits have implemented or are starting to implement as it struggles with finding enough court reporters.

At last count, there are 41 vacancies among the state’s 24 judicial circuits, said Tammy Bumgarner, director of state court reporting services. About 500 of the 1,900 licensed court reporters in Illinois, or about one in four, work for the state court system.

The problems circuits are having in filling vacancies go beyond the state’s protracted funding and budget woes.

Downstate judicial circuits, a few of which cover nine counties and one of which covers 12, do not have the same access to licensed reporters the Chicago area does. Besides a general decline in people interested in becoming court reporters – recent data from the National Court Reporters Association puts more than half of them at age 50 or older – the pay and the flexible scheduling of the private sector is more attractive.

Bumgarner said the average salary for an experienced circuit reporter is about $42,000, and that the salary is often cited by reporters who turn down job offers.

“Being able to keep up our salaries with the private sector is difficult, so of that pool of court reporters that remains that aren’t already working for us, we’re not able to pay a competitive rate to lure them over to the official court reporter side,” Bumgarner said.

McLean County several months ago approved a $90,000 bid to install systems in six of its 12 courtrooms. The county, which includes the cities of Bloomington and Normal, is one of five counties that make up the 11th Judicial Circuit. Four of the circuit’s 20 reporter positions are vacant, one of which has been vacant for three years.

The older average age of court reporters also means the problem could become more pronounced as more of them choose to retire. But Wallis said he doesn’t worry about that – he has had one court reporter retire since he first took the job in 2008.

“We have a lot of long-term court reporters. Some of them have been here more than 30 years. The turnover has been very slight,” Wallis said.

• The Associated Press contributed to this story.