Two-way video-conferencing technology has a history of connecting prisoners virtually to their court arraignments, but more recently, the technology’s been utilized to connect interpreters to courtrooms.

Often when someone is to appear in court, he or she may not speak English as a first language or at all, and requires the assistance of an interpreter. So in 2007, the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida implemented technology to allow certified, language and sign language court interpreters to connect remotely to a hearing on behalf of a defendant.

To help non-English speakers communicate during their hearings, interpreters remotely call in from a workstation to the courtroom where the hearing is being held using the video-conferencing technology. After initially calling in, the interpreter is then virtually sworn into the hearing, and he or she can begin interpreting for the case.

Typically the Ninth Circuit Court holds 91 hearings per day that require a court interpreter. During fiscal 2009 to 2010, the court held almost 21,000 hearings that required an interpreter to translate into Spanish, more than 900 hearings to translate into Haitian-Creole, 325 to translate into sign language, and 590 for other languages, according to a court report. Interpreters are either full-time court staff or work on a freelance basis.

The Ninth Circuit Court spans Orange and Osceola counties, which make up nearly 1.4 million in population. Within those two counties, 67 courtrooms in seven facilities are used across more than 2,200 square miles, which presented challenges when interpreters were needed to be physically present during a hearing.

Matt Benefiel, a court administrator for the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court who highlighted this newer use during a video press conference on Oct. 25, said switching to virtualized infrastructure to allow for interpreters to connect to hearings remotely helped the courts eliminate challenges that surround transporting an interpreter to a specific hearing. Implementing the technology, developed by Cisco, also helped with scheduling conflicts that would arise when a physical presence of an interpreter was needed in the courtroom.

The switch to the virtual technology resulted in cost savings for the state, Benefiel said, because transportation costs for the interpreters could be eliminated.

Courting More Courts

Prior to the Cisco implementation, Florida experimented with other methods for remote interpreters to connect to a courtroom.

“We initially did this with telephone lines, and we had initial success,” Benefiel said. “We fumbled our way through a design, but what we found was that we kind of hit a hot button in the courtroom community, and a lot of courts became interested in what we were doing.”

But the system originally developed for the courts couldn’t be replicated for other states and wasn’t scalable. Benefiel said although the original system did achieve cost savings, it could not be expanded beyond the Ninth Circuit Court on a statewide or larger regional level, so the state began working with Cisco.

So far, Cisco’s video technology has only been implemented in the Ninth Circuit Court, but Florida is working with the vendor to cover the Seventh Circuit Court -- a jurisdiction that spans six counties of the state’s east coast region. According to Cisco, the company is currently working on similar pilot projects in the nation and worldwide.

In April, similar video-conference technology for the purpose of connecting interpreters was demonstrated in West Virginia during the 2012 Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators. The state now provides virtual interpreting “in all criminal and civil settings during all hearings, trials and motions and in important interactions with court personnel," according to local media.

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.