Program allows Illinois inmates access to family court

An unusual program offered in Cook County is offering an underserved, perhaps forgotten, population access to family court. The program offers prisoners — officially, incarcerated litigants — a chance to appear before a judge via teleconference to deal with divorce, parenting time, support and other family court matters without the hassle of arranging an in-person appearance.

Incarcerated litigants are not entirely like the rest of us. They have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to a crime, a crime so serious that the law demands they give up their freedom for a period of time. They have lost their right to vote, their right to manage their own time and their right to visit with their loved ones without restrictions. None of this, however, changes the fact that they have a spouse, that they have children.

Family relationships can be strained to the breaking point when a partner or parent is incarcerated. Because Illinois prisons tend to be located far afield of population centers, prisoners may have little or no contact with their families while they serve their sentences. For married couples, the separation may lead to divorce. For parents, the separation may lead to alienation from their children.

To make matters more difficult, that physical distance from cities and towns has translated into extremely limited access to the court system. By working with a teleconferencing system, though, the incarcerated litigant program eliminates the distance between judge and  petitioner or respondent.

In the 10 months the program has been up and running, the presiding judge has granted divorces, helped to reunite parents and children and, importantly, offered inmates an official forum where their problems are taken seriously. The judge says, too, that by offering solutions or some kind of relief for the litigants’ current situations, the program paves the way for a fresh start once the litigant is released. They don’t have to hunt down their children or figure out how to get out of an abusive marriage while trying to make a new life for themselves.

At the moment, it isn’t clear that other county courts will follow Cook County’s lead.

Source: Chicago Tribune, “Difficult prison divorces easing with judge’s help,” Mary Schmich, Feb. 12, 2016

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