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Indiana Citizens, Judges See Benefits of Virtual Hearings

Months into the pandemic, the courts of Elkhart County, Ind., were way behind on hearings. But a month after gaining the ability to conduct virtual hearings, the courts got completely caught up.

An Elkhart County Courtroom
An Elkhart County Courtroom
Courtesy Elkhart County
Thanks to efficiencies brought about by technology, court proceedings in Elkhart County, Ind., may never be the same again for judges, attorneys and everyday citizens. 

Like many court systems throughout the country, Elkhart County Courts faced a backlog of hearings after it was forced to halt its regular activities due to COVID-19. In the middle of the summer, however, the county implemented a new solution from Cisco called Connected Justice, which has allowed the court system to get ahead of its work through virtual proceedings, said Elkhart County IT Director Matthew Dietz.

“We’ve had over 1,500 hearings since July,” Dietz said. 

The advantages of video-based hearings can call into question many things about the way courts have functioned for hundreds of years. Dietz said one of the greatest examples is that Elkhart County no longer asks citizens to plan an entire day around a court proceeding. A working person no longer has to wait hours for a 15-minute meeting.

“The litigants like it, and it’s pretty easy to figure out why,” said Elkhart Circuit Court Judge Michael Christofeno. “If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, and you have to take off two or three times in a six-month period to go sit half a day in court … and you run the risk of losing your job … how is that good for any litigant? How are we servicing the public when we’re doing that?”

Christofeno was once quite skeptical about the notion of virtual hearings. In a virtual context, can a judge get a good read on someone? And that question assumes that a judge would be able to use the associated technology effectively without the assistance of IT personnel. 

After Christofeno tried out the new system, his fears were put to rest, and that’s not all: He now believes virtual hearings are the way to go, even after the pandemic ends.

“I think the big impacts will continue to pay dividends, and we will continue to do remote hearings,” Christofeno said. 

The positive impacts go beyond making court proceedings easier for citizens to attend. Both Dietz and Christofeno cited increased security. Now the county doesn’t have to worry about what dozens of people in a courtroom might do. According to Christofeno, judges especially appreciate this change, as studies have shown that domestic cases can result in emotional outbursts where people may “take actions that they would never take in another set of circumstances.” 

“I would have, at the very least, 50 people in the courtroom glaring at one another and saying ‘hi’ to each other with their single-finger salutes,” Christofeno remarked.

Dietz added that he has observed more positive attitudes among citizens in general when they attend court hearings remotely, as they don’t have to worry about potential hurdles like child care or transportation anymore.

Because criminal hearings now occur virtually, Elkhart County has not only eliminated a potential security risk with offenders but has also cut down on transportation costs. In the past, 30 to 50 offenders would be transported to Christofeno’s courtroom every Thursday. Now, those individuals attend their hearings in jail. 

Virtual hearings have also shown Christofeno the benefit of not having to rely on his normal eyesight to size up people in the courtroom. 

“I look down at my laptop and see a much better picture of their face,” he said. “I could literally tell you where on their face that they’re sweating.”

One of the county’s biggest concerns with virtual court proceedings involved the ability of attornys to talk to their clients in confidence, Dietz said. This concern is addressed by a side-room feature that prevents other virtual participants from listening to private conversations. 

Of course, different court systems may have different concerns. Elkhart County’s solution itself was customized. According to Cassie Roach, vice president of the global public sector for Cisco, the Connected Justice solution can be tailored to account for specific issues that counties or cities want to address. 

Dietz noted that all of Elkhart County’s judges have been enthusiastic about the new system. From his perspective, the key to implementing such a solution is developing a plan on how to introduce the tech to staff. He advises setting everything up for the users and showing them plenty of examples. 

“We really simplified the process, which allowed people to feel comfortable with it, because when they feel comfortable with it, then they’re going to adopt it at a much quicker pace and actually use it to its full extent,” Dietz said. 

Christofeno said he doesn’t see a downside to conducting virtual hearings, which can even allow those accused of a crime to confront witnesses. However, Christofeno has sensed pushback from some about the idea of continuing virtual hearings beyond the pandemic. His perspective on resisting change is simple: “Don’t be a dinosaur” when it comes to tech. 

“I was very much old school, and I am one of the biggest proponents now of using technology to make what we were doing even better,” he said.

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.