The future of the justice system

By: Alex Szwarc | C&G Newspapers | Published April 6, 2021

 On March 25, Leadership Macomb continued its virtual series with “The Future of the Justice System.” The session focused on the transformations that have taken place in the world of Macomb County justice and what the system will look like moving forward.

On March 25, Leadership Macomb continued its virtual series with “The Future of the Justice System.” The session focused on the transformations that have taken place in the world of Macomb County justice and what the system will look like moving forward.

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MACOMB COUNTY — For over a year now, the Macomb County judicial system has largely operated remotely, from moving court proceedings to Zoom and YouTube, to delaying in-person jury trials.

On March 25, Leadership Macomb continued its virtual series with “The Future of the Justice System.”

The session focused on the transformations that have taken place in the world of Macomb County justice and what the system will look like moving forward.

Magistrate Ryan Zemke, deputy court administrator for 41-B District Court in Clinton Township, moderated a panel of guest speakers.

Leadership Macomb is a nonprofit organization whose 10-month program brings together leaders from numerous institutions, and disciplines to obtain in-depth information about issue driven, relevant topics in Macomb County. Since 1996, over 1,200 professionals have graduated from the program.

“At this time last year, we were a couple weeks into it and thought we were reopening any day,” Zemke said. “It’s something that we’ve had to learn and adapt to.”

Macomb County Undersheriff Elizabeth Darga, a graduate of Leadership Macomb, said early on in the pandemic, it was a whirlwind.

“It’s easier to deal with crime scenes than it is to deal with COVID,” she said. “We came up with policies relatively quickly.”

Around mid-March 2020, the Macomb County Jail had about 850 prisoners. The current jail population is around 550. It’s low point in 2020 was under 300.

Regarding the number of COVID-19 cases in the jail, Darga said Macomb County dodged a bullet, compared with other county jails and the number of inmates with COVID-19. She credits the lower numbers to immediately quarantining inmates upon intake.  

“We learn early on in the police academy that you improvise, adapt and overcome, and that’s what we did and it worked out,” she said.

Court Administrator and Magistrate Jim McGrail from 41-B District Court in Clinton Township said, due to a separation of powers, the governor would issue executive orders, which didn’t apply to the courts.

“We report to the Michigan Supreme Court and the state court administrative office on how we handle things,” he said.

Early on, McGrail said the court didn’t know what Zoom court was.

“We were hopeful this was going to be over in two weeks,” he said. “We then realized it might turn into a long-term process, and we implemented a rolling schedule of clerks coming in.”

He said the caseload has leveled off and is about 60%-70% of what it was before the pandemic.

Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Julie Gatti said looking back on the past year is a little difficult.

“I haven’t really thought back to a year ago and what it felt like,” she said. “My husband was COVID positive on March 22, so we had it in our home right away. It’s a little hard to relive it. The unknown was so big.”

Looking at her criminal docket, Gatti said she signed orders to release individuals who were no danger to the public.

“You’re constantly hearing the arguments and trying to analyze it on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “There were no blanket metrics.”

Tanya Grillo, a criminal defense attorney from Grillo Law, P.L.L.C., who is another Leadership Macomb graduate, said her last courtroom appearance before the pandemic was March 12.

“As a defense attorney, our population of lawyers is everyone from millennials to baby boomers,” she said. “Some have health issues, concerned with coming into court, and others who say they have to go in.”

Leadership Macomb’s next session is April 15, focusing on the economic impact of the pandemic in Macomb County.

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