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Video Justice

Overcrowded jails and clogged court systems

Overcrowded jails and clogged court systems are realities unlikely to disappear in the near future. But video arraignment may help ease some of the strain on the court system.


PROBLEM/SITUATION: Overcrowded courts create logistical problems for
transporting prisoners.
SOLUTION: Avoid transporting prisoners to courthouse for arraignment by using videoconferencing technology.
CONTACT: G2 Research Inc. 415/964-2400.


By Meghan Cotter
G2 Research Inc.

Overcrowded jails and clogged court dockets are pushing courts to explore the use of videoconferencing to accelerate cases and reduce prisoner transport between jail and the courthouse. One step in the criminal justice process which can be addressed without hindering a fair hearing and eventual trial is the arraignment, when the defendant enters a plea. Defendants usually have to be transported from jails to the courthouse, costing governments money for transportation and

The arraignment process in particular cries out for an injection of technology and streamlining, if anything because of the sheer number of agencies and individuals involved. A typical arraignment can involve a myriad of agencies, including police officers or sheriff's deputies, district attorneys, public defenders and court employees.

According to the National Center of State Courts, there are some 200 video arraignment solutions installed in state court systems today. As video compression technology becomes even more affordable, interest in video arraignment will continue to increase. While each state has different statutes that may apply to the technology's use, a U.S. Supreme Court opinion cleared the way for courts to use video arraignment for first appearance felonies and for misdemeanors, which represented 77 percent of 12 million new criminal cases in 1991.

Increased numbers of jurisdictions are seriously considering the feasibility of video arraignment, primarily because it addresses some of their most pressing problems in a cost-effective manner. The areas in which video arraignment can help save cost include:

* Inmate processing. The hours required for sheriff, police and corrections personnel to process the necessary paperwork and prepare inmates for transportation to court are substantial.

* Security. Agencies incur heavy expenses associated with providing security and supervision for inmates who are being transported from jail to the courthouse and back to jail.

* Transportation. Actual costs associated with the transportation of inmates include costs of hiring a bus driver, operating a bus, gas and long-term maintenance of the vehicle itself.

* Court holding facility. The courts need to maintain holding facilities, provide uniformed officers for supervising prisoners, and post an officer in every courtroom in which an inmate is present.

* Release of Defendants. If a defendant is released during arraignment, the defendant must first be transported back to jail in order to process paperwork prior to being released. If this procedure is not completed before dinner time, the department of corrections also incurs the cost of providing the soon-to-be-released defendant with a meal, and the former defendant has to spend more time in the jail house.

Basic components of a video arraignment solution include a two-way, full-motion color video system of closed circuit cameras, color monitors, audio systems and videotape systems. The most important component of the system, however, is an advanced networking infrastructure, often fiber-optic cable, that connects the courthouse with the jail.

Once a video arraignment system is in place, inmates don't leave the jail for courthouse arraignment appearances. They simply appear on video for arraignment in courts located in a different physical location.

A video arraignment solution provides benefits to all parties involved. Regardless of jurisdiction size or arraignment caseload, public safety agencies, departments of corrections, and courts throughout the country can benefit from video arraignment. The primary benefits include:

* Reduced security risks associated with transporting and handling defendants. Regardless of the distance which defendants must travel, security is always an issue of public concern when transporting inmates. Once removed from the physical confines of jail, defendants pose a potential safety risk to the public, court personnel, other defendants and law enforcement officers alike. Video arraignment eliminates the need to transport inmates from one location to another, removing the risk that inmates may create disturbances or harm other defendants or court and law enforcement personnel. Reducing this risk is the primary goal among jurisdictions considering video arraignment.

* Reduced overcrowding of courthouse holding facilities. With the increase in criminal cases, courts find themselves arraigning an increasing number of defendants. However, the capacity of courthouse holding facilities are now often insufficient to meet current demand. The result is an overcrowded, uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous situation.

* Improved custody conditions for defendants while they await arraignment. Video arraignment offers inmates the luxury of staying in jail without having to be in an overcrowded court holding facility. Inmates typically approve of video arraignment because it offers better custody conditions and allows them to avoid numerous body searches, handcuffs, and endless waiting periods in the court holding facility.

* Improvements in the overall efficiency of court proceedings. Inmates must be escorted from the holding facility once the entire courtroom is ready to convene. Often, these facilities are not close to the courtroom and the entire court (including the judge, bailiff, public defender, district attorney, etc.) are delayed for each arraignment. With fewer delays, the court is more efficient and can better manage its docket.

Additional benefits of video arraignment solutions include reduced tension levels among guards and prisoners, minimized delays, and the elimination of the co-mingling of accused felons with first-time offenders. Moreover, because video arraignment is just one of many applications for videoconferencing technology, courtrooms are finding additional uses for the systems. For example, Fulton County, Ga., utilizes its video arraignment system for bond hearings, court reporter translations, probation revocation hearings and child support hearings.

The most common criticism of video arraignment comes from public defenders, many of whom believe that video arraignment interferes with the defendant's legal right to adequate defense representation and the defense attorney's ethical duty to provide zealous representation. In response to this argument, many states have passed associated statutes that require the presence (either physical or via telecommunications) of the defense attorney before the video arraignment begins.

In addition, some states find that there are legal limitations which impede the expansion of video arraignment solutions. As an example, Michigan utilizes a pre-sentence investigation process designed to speed up the sentencing process when a defendant pleads guilty. If a pre-disposition investigation is

conducted, the court can sentence the defendant the same day he pleads guilty. However, sentencing defendants is not permitted via video. Thus, with video arraignment, the defendant and attorney must return to court for sentencing, usually within a week or two after the plea.

Finally, some judges find that the technology does not afford them the same control over the courtroom environment. For example, video arraignment does not always guarantee confidential communication between inmates and attorneys, nor does it enable the judge to screen out extraneous activity (e.g., noise in the arraignment room). Also, technical barriers exist for bailiff personnel who are not properly trained to operate the equipment.