Maybe I’m just naive, but I find the concept of conducting any courtroom business via video enthralling but also a bit unnerving. It seems so inconsistent with the mythical and timeless ideals of the hallowed halls of justice, yadda yadda yadda.

Whether we like it or not, however, video conferencing is creeping into courthouses across the country. For example, as I previously reported, a Georgia court let a criminal witness testify via Skype.

Last week a government survey revealed that Pennsylvania state courts conduct more than 15,000 video conferences each month. More than half were preliminary arraignments, but the state used videoconferencing for warrant proceedings, bail hearings and sentencing hearings, too.

According to the survey, not only does video conferencing save the state a boatload of money, it also saves magistrate judges from having to personally interact with the pesky “derelicts” charged with crimes.

Keep reading to find out how virtual arraignment conserves dollars and judicial peace of mind….

From the June 7 press release (PDF) by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania:

The survey, conducted by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts’ (AOPC) Office of Judicial Security, found that on average more than 15,700 proceedings are held via video conferencing each month, saving the state’s magisterial district and Common Pleas courts an estimated $1.7 million monthly or a cumulative cost savings of more than $21 million annually. Philadelphia and Delaware counties reported the highest monthly savings of $550,000 and $271,000, respectively.

Twenty-one million bucks per year might not save the entire state budget or anything, but it’s not too shabby. That’s enough to, like, clone Elie a bunch of times, pay off all his/their loans, and buy a jet so they can fly off to Vegas.

Pennsylvania started incorporating video in 2003, according to the Law Technology News:

The Supreme Court amended the criminal procedure rules in 2003 to allow for video conferencing in proceedings in which it does not impede defendants’ ability to confront witnesses. Shortly after, several counties throughout the state used tax dollars [to] put the requisite technology in place.

Unsurprisingly, some attorneys have concerns. For starters, being on video can make clients uncomfortable, and “whispering over a video screen isn’t quite as easy as it is in person.”

Regardless, Pennsylvania doesn’t have a monopoly on the idea. It looks like parts of Ohio and Maine do it too. I’m sure there are more on that list — feel free to mention in the comments — but that’s what a quick search of the National Center for State Courts website turned up.

Honestly though, the most interesting part of this is the way judges have reacted. Apparently some magistrate judges work in fairly dangerous conditions, according to LTN:

The expansion has been well received by MDJs throughout the state, some district judges said, as many were accustomed to conducting proceedings with defendants over a transaction counter, often with a layer of bulletproof glass being the only divide between them. The state also installed panic buttons and security cameras as part of a post-9/11 security initiative that sought to keep more than 550 district judges in this state safer. And although the Polycom 4100 can’t deflect gunfire, judges have happily made the change.

In one county, judges even had to visit prisoners in a jail library to conduct hearings:

Before the advent of video conferencing, [Magistrate District Judge Martin] Kane not-so-fondly recalled his trips to the Luzerne County, Pa., correctional facility, where judges had for years conducted court proceedings with defendants within the confines of a prison library. Luzerne is an exception to the norm, as most counties pay to bring the defendant to the judge. That’s a cost Kane is happy to see deflate.

“I find it a great factor from [a cost] standpoint,” Kane said. “From the safety standpoint, it used to be a very uncomfortable setting for me going into that prison. You got those derelicts walking by you and near you.”

“Your safety is always at risk when you go into the prison,” he said.

Again, maybe I’m naive, but I don’t think it’s acceptable that judges should routinely feel unsafe at work. If that’s a widespread problem, there need to be more solutions than just video conferencing.

On the other hand, it’s a bit ridiculous that this technology is being subtly spun as a benefit to prisoners as well. It does save more government money on transportation, but I don’t see the accused getting jazzed about this. “Yay! I don’t have to get up early today and leave jail. I’d much rather just stay in my cell.”

As anyone who’s read The Bonfire of the Vanities knows, and as Dominique Strauss-Kahn can confirm, a correctional facility or booking center is not exactly a happy place to hang.

Judges Applaud Videoconferencing, Defense Lawyers Cautious [Law Technology News]


Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He previously covered legal technology for InsideCounsel magazine. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or email him at cdanzig@gmail.com. You can read more of his work at chrisdanzig.com.


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