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COVID-19 making changes, backlogs the norm for region's courts
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Though regional legal professionals have become more adept at handling remote hearings brought on by COVID-19, a state pause on criminal jury trials until at least March will likely leave a backlog well after the heavily burdened court systems returns to normal following the pandemic.

Rice County Attorney John Fossum noted there are more than 200 jury trials the county’s court administration office is working to reschedule. He noted that in most instances, six or seven jury trials are scheduled on a weekly basis but only one or two make it that far without a settlement being reached. Still, he anticipates a long-term backlog due to the pandemic.

“It’s always a moving target, and more cases come in all the time,” he said.

“It’s going to be a larger than normal backlog for some time.”

Prosecutors and defense attorneys both say a prolonged timeframe can harm their cases by shifting their focus to multiple legal files at once. Defendants can feel the burden of a court case for a longer time, and victims have to live with the realization that the alleged perpetrator has yet to be punished.

Fossum said Rice County could bring in judges from other counties or have retired judges work temporarily to ease that backlog, but doing so doesn’t negate the limits on space. The county has four courtrooms, all too small to accommodate a jury trial with social distancing. Space in the county office building next to the courthouse converted to a temporary courtroom can again be used when the court system reopens, giving the county additional space. But it still has only three judges chambered in Faribault.

Despite those limitations, Fossum, who is in his seventh year as county attorney, said the court system is just as busy as ever. The Rice County Attorney’s Office has had nearly as many criminal vehicular homicide cases in September and December — two — than in the rest of Fossum’s tenure. He attributes that to more people driving at a higher speeds, fearing the legal consequences, and an increase in drug and alcohol use during the pandemic.

‘We’ve learned a lot’

Steele County Court Administrator Robin Hoesley said the county’s focus since the start of the pandemic has been keeping the courts open and accessible while prioritizing safety, an approach she acknowledged has been “a delicate balance.” She noted the county has worked with additional temporary staff who are being utilized to be Zoom hosts, adding she was fortunate to not have vacancies following a hiring freeze instituted following the onset of the pandemic. That pause has since been lifted, allowing staff to fill open positions.

Court administration staff is now sending notices to those involved with court cases that include Zoom meeting information, a departure from what traditionally had been an in-person process.

“We’re doing our best to stay on top of the work and keep the system going,” Hoesley said.

She acknowledged that “it’s really almost impossible” to know how long court restrictions will last due to ongoing uncertainty around the pandemic. In March, 40 jury trials are scheduled in Steele County. That number drops to 29 in April, 30 in May and nine in June. Hoesley also anticipates that a number of those cases will likely be resolved before a jury trial begins.

Once Rice County court administrators realized they couldn’t hold traditional in-person jury trials, they worked with county leaders to create a the fifth courtroom. That approach proved fruitful until November, when in-person courts were again shut down, a measure health officials said were needed to prevent the spread of the virus. The courts won’t open again until at least March 15. Even when jury trials were allowed in Rice County, there were a couple cases where the proceedings were delayed due to someone being exposed to the virus. In one case, a mistrial was declared.

Court Administrator Lisa Kuhlman said Rice County District Court had “a considerable amount of backlog” immediately following the onset of the first state shutdown. However, since then, that backlog has been reduced to mainly just in-person jury trials until at least March 15, unless the defendant awaiting trial is in custody or is seeking a speedy process, or, in some instances, the type of criminal charges a person faces. All other hearings have been rescheduled.

Online hearings are reportedly becoming easier to administer. To Kuhlman, county administrators have “done a tremendous job of adapting to that.”

Kuhlman said online meetings have reduced the number of failures to appear amongst defendants, lessened transportation challenges and increased the number of people appearing for their hearings.

“It’s going actually better than expected,” she said. “At first there was a lot to learn.”

Even after the pandemic subsides, she anticipates Rice County District Court will continue to offer online hearings in some instances, like civil and family cases and those with long travel times for relatively short hearings.

In Waseca County, a one-judge county where online court hearings are now also the norm, Court Administrator Shannon Asselin also said the court system no longer has a backlog other than for criminal/civil trials, a development she said could be possible due to the relatively small size of the county and lack of jury trials. Court administration has created a self-help center for clients to use the remote hearing system.

“We’ve been able to meet this challenge too because we’ve had the help of our justice partners,” Asselin said.

‘It’s not ideal’

Though Steele County Attorney Dan McIntosh believes remote hearings brought on by the pandemic are “not ideal,” including one recent instance when a phone died and caused a one-day delay in a court hearing, he noted there isn’t a major backlog other than cases set for jury trials. He noted in the initial stages of the pandemic, the court system couldn’t process the regular number of cases while undertaking exclusively online hearings. However, McIntosh noted participants have adapted.

Still, McIntosh, a self-described “creature of habit,” said online hearings have resulted in the loss of some non-verbal aspects of in-person court hearings. Also, waiting times before court appearances can give lawyers the chance to communicate with each other. The court system has hired an online moderator to help with technological glitches.

‘The court moves at its own pace’

Faribault-based lawyer John Hamer immediately thought remote court hearings would be “a big problem,” last March. Since then, Hamer has noticed the changes have forced him to work more outside of the courtroom/courthouse setting. He said handling business over the phone and via electronic filing has proven to be more efficient.

The court system has undergone “a pretty broad adaptation” to utilize technology during hearings. Because of that adaptation, Hamer also expects some of the technological components to be used once the pandemic ends. He said courts are still reluctant to call juries for non-criminal cases because of the continuing pandemic, causing a backlog to develop. To him, the court system should have adopted the changes COVID-19 eventually wrought before last spring, adding that doing so might have reduced any backlogs and saved some law firms that have shuttered over the last 11 months.

Hamer suggested court administrators consider hiring interim judges to handle remote cases and enable flexibility to reduce the burden the pandemic has brought on the justice system.

In noting the unprecedented levels of stress many Americans have felt during the pandemic, Hamer said he has stressed to his clients that despite the anxiety posed by seemingly never-ending cases, they can rely on him to shoulder the burden of the system.

“The court moves at its own pace,” he said of what he tells his clients.

Steele County Judge Karen Duncan said the pandemic has made work harder for staff. Initially, case clearance rates were initially in the 30% range, but that has since more than doubled.

Duncan, who was appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton in March 2013, says some find online difficult to manage while others have an easier time.

Duncan has found herself spending more time on administrative work instead of focusing on hearing cases, conducting research and drafting orders. That’s not true for everyone. Fellow judges have told her that they have lost sleep and are also spending more time on the administrative/technical aspects of the position.

However, she said remote hearings are having some benefits. Anecdotally speaking, she said more people who are not directly involved in the trial now feel more comfortable listening into hearings because of the elimination of travel time and ease in doing so. Still, Steele County courtrooms are open if visitors wear masks.

Winter weather amplifies the chaos of homelessness, lack of emergency shelter

When bitter cold temperatures swept through the region over the weekend, for many people it simply meant staying inside or throwing on an extra pair of wool socks.

For roughly 300 people in Steele County, however, the winter weather meant life or death.

“It’s a visceral kind of anxiety,” said Julie Anderson, executive director of Transitional Housing of Steele County. “It’s quite literally a cold fear that strikes your heart.”

Every year as summer begins to wind down and the winter months creep closer, Anderson and the rest of the staff at Transitional Housing begin to dread the inevitable cold weather and what that means for people on the fringe – those facing homelessness.

“The normal course of events with homelessness is terrifying enough,” Anderson said. “When put in a situation where it’s life or death because of the elements, now it’s a fight or flight situation. People could die in these temperatures.”

Based on records kept by Transitional Housing, Anderson said roughly 300 people in Steele County are considered homeless on any given night. This ranges from people living in their vehicles, couch surfers, individuals not included on a lease, and those trying to escape domestic violence. While Transitional Housing, an interfaith-based nonprofit, typically assists in locating affordable housing and providing services that aid in rent subsidies, Anderson said throughout all last week and over the weekend their phones were ringing off the hook with people in a panic as temperatures continued to drop below zero.

“At any given time we have 30 to 50 families on our waiting list for our program,” Anderson said, adding that the average household number for these families are four individuals. “It’s different types of homelessness at different degrees, but they are all people who are disoriented and living somewhere that they shouldn’t be. They are all in unsafe places, especially during winter months.”

Last week, Anderson said Transitional Housing helped up to 10 families who were living out of their vehicles during the cold weather snap. Because the organization is designed to help people secure housing, Anderson said when emergencies such as these pop up they have to get creative with solutions.

“We don’t typically have motel vouchers available, but we had to use the funds we do have creatively until this weather settles a little bit,” Anderson said. “When it gets this cold, we simply have to find places within our budget to make it work. We don’t want to change our program from permanent supportive housing, but with weather like this we have to be flexible.”

Though there are many places in the area that provide programs to help people transition from homelessness to stable housing – such as the Hospitality House for men in Owatonna and Ruth’s House for women and children in Faribault – Anderson said the entire region of southern Minnesota is missing a crucial resource.

“We need emergency housing,” Anderson said bluntly. “All of these places including Rachel’s Light in Owatonna and the Bethlehem Inn in Waseca are truly wonderful places, but they are often full. There is no place for people to go for emergency shelter, and that is simply exacerbated by this kind of weather.”

While Anderson said she is continually looking in to various funding opportunities to get an emergency shelter in place somewhere in the community, for now all Transitional Housing can truly do is continue to get creative in finding funds for emergency shelter inside motels. Though they normally can only afford anywhere from three to five days in a motel, Anderson said sometimes that’s all they need to help someone get stabilized.

“People can stabilize rather quickly and a situation can turn positive just like that – it doesn’t have to be too complicated,” Anderson said, adding that Transitional Housing provides first month’s rent and security deposits for rental housing. “It’s just all the chaos that goes into homelessness that makes it an emotional roller coaster, and when it gets cold it becomes an immediate emergency.”

Blooming Prairie Elementary starts a new chapter
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A large book club including readers of all ages started this month in an effort to create a culture of literacy in younger learners’ lives.

Blooming Prairie Elementary is hosting its first school-wide book club, inviting all students and staff to participate as part of “I Love to Read” month. Blooming Prairie Education Foundation recently donated over 370 copies of the children’s book “Flora and Ulysses” by Kate DiCamillo, a Minneapolis author, which were then distributed to all elementary school families.

Each book came with a bookmark designating daily assigned reading goals from “Flora and Ulysses” for families to complete each night. The school has also provided videos of staff reading the book out loud for children who might not have the option of reading together with their family.

The idea for the school-wide book club came from readtothem.org, a nonprofit which supports schools implementing its “One School, One Book” program, according to second grade teacher Lexi Kath. Kath along with other second grade teachers were tasked with organizing this year’s I Love to Read month celebration.

“(The book club) sparks a community-wide discussion when you pick one book for the whole school to read and so with Blooming Prairie being so small, we thought that would be perfect for our little community,” Kath said.

Research has shown the various benefits of reading to children, including its ability to help children listen better and for longer, help their social and emotional development and increase their vocabularies, among other benefits, according to readtothem.org.

To get students excited for I Love to Read activities, the elementary school staff put together a parody music video. Second grade teachers rewrote the lyrics to Pharrell Williams’s Happy and then recruited elementary staff to dress up and dance in the video to promote reading. The video was then shared on the school’s social media page and played within the school’s classrooms.

“Some of the kids were so excited to see their teacher on the TV and doing funny things,” Kath said.

Now a week into the book club, Kath said the response has been positive and students are engaged and excited to read. Every day trivia questions related to the assigned reading are shown on the classroom TVs.

“My kids are just so excited to see what the question is,” Kath said. “It just really holds them accountable for reading the book at night, and then having discussions in the room with their classmates.”

Other activities planned for the month-long celebration include weekly dress up days, like school spirit gear day, pajama day, hat day and work out gear day. Additionally, the elementary has posted a “Masked Reader” video every day on their Facebook page. In these videos a staff member reads a short children’s book while wearing a mask, inviting students to take a guess at the reader’s identity as a way to engage students.

Although the school usually sets monthly reading goals for its students, this month is extra special because there are bike prizes up for grabs for students who reach their reading goal. Kath says donations from the community will be used to purchase book prizes for students, adding that the school has raised over $1,000 for prizes to reward student readers.

“We’re hoping that we could get everybody another book in the school for meeting their reading goal,” Kath said.

With the pandemic, Kath said this year’s planning teachers were tasked with creating activities that everybody could do outside of the classroom as not everyone was going to be together this year. Thus the one book, one school idea seemed like a good route.

“Everybody gets their own copy and it’s like theirs to keep at home, and we can have discussions with it within our classroom instead of something we have to do as a whole class,” Kath said.

The school won’t be holding its end of the month large group assembly to close I Love to Read month. Instead another surprise event will take the assembly’s place, according to Kath. In the meantime Kath and other educators hope the school-wide book club continues to engage students regardless of where they are reading. They hope it helps students connect with one another during this strange time while also building a community of readers.