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Courts use video system to link magistrates to inmates

August 05, 2000

Courts use video system to link magistrates to inmates



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer


CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Two Eastern Panhandle courts have begun using a videoconferencing system that allows magistrates to arraign inmates from jail.

Not only is the system expected to save thousands of dollars in costs of transporting inmates from jails to courtrooms, but it will be a much safer way of dealing with criminals, local magistrates and state correctional officials say.

"Money is important. The part that is more important is that every time we keep an inmate behind bars, that is an enhancement of public safety," said Steve Canterbury, executive director of the West Virginia Regional Jail Authority.

Last week, the Remote Video Court Appearance system was implemented in magistrate courts in Jefferson and Morgan counties. It is expected to start in Berkeley County on Aug. 14, said Lt. Ben Shreve, of the Eastern Regional Jail near Martinsburg.

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The videoconferencing system gives magistrates everything they need to communicate with inmates: audio, video and data transmission.

Jefferson County Magistrate Gail Boober demonstrated the system last week with the help of regional jail correctional officer Lorne Gerhart.

To start the process, Boober picked up a plastic instrument resembling a pen and touched an icon on her "V-Pad" to dial-up the regional jail. A box appeared on the monitor in the courtroom while the system connected to the jail.

A room in the jail appeared on the screen and Gerhart sat down.

"Hello," said Boober.

"Hi," replied Gerhart.

"You sound better than this morning. It sounded like you were in a tunnel in outer space," Boober said.

When arraigned on charges, the prisoner is seated by the correctional officer. If the magistrate finds probable cause to charge the person, the system allows the magistrate and the correctional officers to fax the necessary paperwork to each other for arraignment.

The magistrate then reads the inmate his or her rights. An inmate must sign the rights form in the presence of a magistrate, and the system allows Boober to zoom-in on the hand of the inmate to watch him or her sign it.

The system can also be used to conduct bond hearings or take depositions from other inmates in the jail who may be witnesses to crimes, officials said.

"We can do everything short of a full trial," Canterbury said.

The interactive system will be used to arraign inmates arrested after 5 p.m. on weekdays and on the weekends, when magistrates are not on duty.

Previously, when no magistrate was on duty arresting officers would have to take their prisoner to jail, then make the round trip from the jail to the magistrate's office for arraignment later, Boober said. Under the new system, a prisoner would be taken directly to jail and arraigned by videoconferencing when the magistrate becomes available, eliminating the round trip from the jail and back.

During the day, officers can continue to take prisoners before the magistrate first and then transport them to jail, Boober said.

The Eastern Panhandle is the second area in West Virginia to use the system. Kanawha County began using the system a little over a year ago, and correctional officials there have cut their transportation to the South Central Regional Jail near Charleston by 40 percent, Canterbury said.

State correctional officials hope to use the system for other purposes, such as allowing correctional officers to take courses from around the country without leaving their place of employment.

Each of the units in the jails and magistrate courts cost about $50,000, and the Legislature set aside $2.5 million last year for counties to pay for the equipment, Canterbury said.

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