Remote bail hearings are reshaping pre-trial logistics at the Bristol County House of Corrections. Rather than transporting defendants to the courtroom, officials say teleconferencing saves time and money and is also safer.
(TNS) — Daniel Keyes, a 28-year-old Rockland man, stood in front of a 42-inch TV screen at the Bristol County House of Corrections in hopes of getting his bail lowered so he could be released from custody.
As he stood there in a room at the Dartmouth facility, his image was being transmitted over a dedicated phone line to a Superior Court courtroom at the Fall River Justice Center, where a judge would decide whether the $4,000 cash bail would be reduced.
Judge Mark Hallal sat on the bench and heard arguments from prosecutor Kristen Wyley and defense attorney James Hanley, also in the Fall River courtroom, on why the bail set in Taunton District Court should be either lowered or remain the same.
Keyes, the only one of the principals not in the courtroom, stood motionless in the room at the county jail. The only time he spoke was to identify himself to the court.
Just like any other review of a bail set in one of Bristol County's four district courts — New Bedford, Fall River, Taunton, Attleboro — the facts of the offense were read by the prosecutor and the defense attorney gave reasons why bail should be lowered.
On this October afternoon, the defense attorney said Keyes had been in custody for 20 days and did not have the funds to make bail. Hanley asked the court to release Keyes on personal recognizance and set conditions for his release — GPS monitoring, daily reporting to the Probation Department, a condition that he not drive a vehicle — because he has a job waiting for him that won't be there much longer.
Wyley said he struck the hand of a Taunton police officer with a car as he was fleeing and later crashed the vehicle. Police dogs aided in the search for Keyes before he turned himself in. The main reason for the bail was Keyes' "ability and instinct" to flee either on foot or in a vehicle even when he was told by police to stay put, the prosecution said.
The judge denied the bail request.
Keyes, wearing a green uniform to signify his status as a pre-trial detainee, turned away from the TV screen without expression and a corrections officer led him back to his cell.
What was different about this bail review, besides being held remotely from the House of Correction, is that the defendant did not have to be transported to the courthouse by corrections officers and then back to the House of Correction when his request was denied.
The video bail reviews started in September in Bristol County courts, according to court and House of Correction officials.
Jennifer Donahue, a spokeswoman for the state Trial Court, described the court's use of video conferencing for bail hearings as "a public safety measure" and "a tremendous savings of security resources." Defendants who are being held at houses of correction do not have to be transported to courthouses, she said in an email to The Standard-Times.
"In certain types of cases, video conferencing eliminates the need to transport a defendant or petitioner from point A to point B, avoids bringing detainees into lockups that can be overcrowded in the older courthouses, and prevents detainees from having to go through public areas to get to courtrooms," she said.
Petitions for review of bail using video conferencing began as early as the 1990s between the Nashua Street and Suffolk Superior Court, she said. Video bail reviews are conducted in every county in the state with the exception of Hampshire with the respective sheriff.
Videoconferencing is no longer an experiment as it is used increasingly throughout the courts of the Commonwealth, she said.
Video conferencing is not used for any criminal proceeding where evidence is introduced, she said. For example, it is not used in Superior Court when judges review decisions to detain based on dangerousness. The defendant is still brought into court for those hearings.
The Trial Court is piloting the use of video conferencing for American sign language interpreters and computer-assisted remote transcription in coordination with the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, she said. Video conferencing has also been utilized for remote witness participation and language interpretation.
The use of video in bail review hearings is supported by Bristol County District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn III, Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson and Marc J. Santos, clerk of Bristol County Superior Court.
"The less people we move, the more cost savings we see," Hodgson said.
"We're happy we did it. It does serve its purpose. Any way we can deliver justice is what we want to do," Santos said.
"I am pleased that, as this is already occurring in other counties in the state, the video conference bail reviews are now taking place in Bristol County. This will preserve court resources, but still allow the defendant and his attorney to interact with the court during an appeal of an adverse bail ruling," Quinn said in a statement to The Standard-Times.
Despite the use of technology to save money and better ensure public safety, defense attorneys question whether justice is being compromised. They have concerns about whether video bail reviews serve the defendant as well as an actual appearance in the courtroom, where attorneys and defendants can speak freely with each other whenever the need arises.
Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel, Public Defender Division, Committee for Public Counsel Services, Boston, strongly criticized the use of video conferencing for bail reviews. He said it has a disproportionate effect on poor people, is dehumanizing and detracts from the dignity of the court.
"It's Court TV. It's not the real thing," he said.
Defendants feel disconnected because of it, and Gioia said if he was a judge he would want to see the individual in person and not on a TV screen to better assess the defendant's character.
"It is virtually impossible to communicate with the client," he said. Normally, a client would just tap his attorney on the shoulder if he or she had a question. There is no way to have an extemporaneous conversation with your lawyer."
Gioia said one of the most important parts of building trust between an attorney and their client is communication. "Lawyers need to be able to meet and communicate with their clients face-to-face before a hearing, during a hearing and after a hearing. Talking by telephone is a poor substitute for a face-to-face meeting," he said.
Jonathan Darling, a spokesman for Bristol County Sheriff's Department, said pre-trial detainees speak with their attorneys prior to bail hearings.
During the one bail review observed by The Standard-Times, the defendant did not speak with his lawyer over the phone during the bail hearing.
David Siegel, a criminal law professor at New England Law, Boston, questioned whether the environment of being in a house of correction affects the judge's decision in a bail review. The judge cannot see a defendant's demeanor or body language and they might appear tired or disheveled. "It's not people's best presentation," Siegel said.
"Seeing someone on a screen is never the same as seeing them in person," he said.
Defendants are prevented from interacting with their attorneys when the prosecutor recites the facts of a case at a bail review, he said. "The bail hearing is at the very early stage of the case and the client is a critical source of information that the lawyer doesn't have access to," Siegel said.
Santos, the clerk of Bristol County Superior Court, said he has wanted to do video bail reviews for a while and began using video in the courts last year with medical malpractice review tribunals somewhat out of necessity. In medical malpractice cases, the plaintiffs are required to provide "an offer of proof," and the tribunals determine if it is sufficient for the litigation to proceed.
The tribunals consist of a Superior Court judge, a lawyer and a physician and the requirement is that the physician cannot be from the same county as the doctor being sued, he said.
The Bristol County Superior Court had trouble meeting this requirement because many physicians did not want to travel the distance to Bristol County, so the court began using video conferencing, he said.
Santos and Superior Court Judge Thomas F. McGuire Jr. went to the Bristol County House of Correction last summer and supervised the implementation of video bail reviews, he said. The bail reviews are held at 2 p.m. in Superior Courtroom 9 at the Fall River Justice Center. The TV screen in Courtroom 9 is off to the side between the witness stand and the jury box. The defendant, while in the House of Correction, can see his attorney, the judge and the prosecutor.
The staff in the county's four district courts send their bail review petitions in the mornings and they are assigned to an attorney and given Superior Court docket numbers, according to Santos.
He said there has been some discussion about expanding the use of video in Bristol County Superior Court, but "nothing specific has been mentioned."
"It has been good so far. It helps us streamline our end of the operation." Santos said. "When 2 o'clock rolls around, everyone is ready. Showtime."
Kenneth Souza, director of intake services at the Bristol County House of Correction, said they do about 2 to 3 video bail reviews per day and between 10 and 12 a week.
Hodgson, whose budget will benefit because of fewer prisoner transports back and forth between Dartmouth and Fall River Superior Court, has long been an advocate of video bail reviews. He remembers it was 2008 when he approached the Trial Court in Boston about the use of video conferencing for bail reviews.
Since 2007-08, the staff at the Sheriff's Department has used video conferencing for federal immigration detainees with the U.S. Immigration Court in Boston, according to Superintendent Steven Souza. "It has worked very well. We do it in a room in the ICE facility," on the campus of the House of Correction, Hodgson said.
"I said this would be a great way to save us time and money," Hodgson said of bail reviews in the state courts. "It worked with federal court. It would work with state court. We're just happy it's done. We're just happy it is up and running."
The sheriff said the program will save his budget money for gas and overtime in fewer transports, but just how much he does not know. He said he could not estimate the cost saving, explaining it only started in September and is too soon to tell.
"It will save money over time," Hodgson said.
In addition to the cost saving, the video conferencing makes the system more efficient and safer. It avoids situations where rival gang members interact in the court and reduces risks to court officers and court security, who may not be familiar with the individuals and their gang affiliations, he said.
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