|Videoconferencing technology has been around for some time. But just recently Jasper County Sheriff Archie Dunn decided to take advantage of it. A part of his program to make the department more efficient, Dunn is using the technology to solve the problem of overcrowded courts and the logistics of transporting prisoners to them. For the second time this month inmate arraignments have been done by video.
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 is the fiber-optic cable that connects the courthouse with the jail.
For the past two Thursday mornings the bailiff in Associate Circuit Court Judge Richard D. Copeland's courtroom at the Jasper County Court Building in Joplin could relax. Combating disorder in the courtroom was not his main responsibility.
Once removed from the physical confines of jail, defendants pose a potential safety risk to the public, law enforcement officers, other defendants and court personnel alike. Video arraignment eliminates the need to transport inmates from one location to another removing this risk. In addition, it offers the opportunity to minimize delays and eliminate the mixing of accused felons with first-time offenders.
Seated at a table within viewing distance of the monitor was Judge Copeland with a remote control in his hand and a microphone nearby. Next to him was a representative from the office of the Jasper County prosecuting attorney, Dean Dankelson. The court clerk sat on the dais. The bailiff stood nearby. In front of the judge were 14 file folders, each representing a person accused of a crime. A camera whose turning radius could be adjusted sat on top of the monitor. It focused at them.
One by one prisoners both male and female dressed in jailhouse orange or stripes appeared on the screen. They were accused of a variety of crimes that ran the gamut of driving an auto without the owner's consent to passing bad checks to bank robbery with the appearance of a deadly weapon to statutory sodomy with a 12 year old child. One was a parole violator, many were picked up for failure to appear.
On this day about 21% of the cases represented those that had been booked for possession of a chemical with intent to manufacture methamphetamine. They attempted to have their bail reduced. No, Judge Copeland said, reminding them that they were being charged with a Class C felony.
The role of the judge was to formally read the charges and insure that defendants understood their rights. Copeland asked all of them if they had legal representation. At the jail most were handed a paper to fill out to secure the services of a public defender for their preliminary hearings.
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. In April 2002 the Judicial Conference of the U.S. Supreme Court as part of its package of criminal rules changes recommended the adoption of a new Rule 26(b) which would authorize the use of two-way video transmissions in most criminal cases in the interest of justice. Justice Scalia in disagreeing with proposed changes stated, "Virtual confrontation might be sufficient to protect virtual constitutional rights; I doubt whether it is sufficient to protect real ones." However, Congress had the final word on the issue.
None of the prisoners seemed concerned over the use of the videoconferencing technology. One tried to "butter up" the judge by telling him, "You look very good on TV."
The occasional 2-3 second feedback delay that produced an echo in the transmission didn't seem to interfere with the proceedings. Fourteen cases were handled in 15 minutes with an additional 5 minutes to make sure that a good audio/video connection had been established.
After referring to the savings in time and transportation costs and the safety issues, Copeland said, "We finished in 20 minutes. It would take longer to get the defendants over here. It's the second week done...and done well." He concluded, "We'll probably continue to do this."