Hearings via video can help cut court costs

February 24, 2008|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - On a Friday in late December, about 80 inmates were moved from the Franklin County Jail to the courthouse for the call of the incarcerated for the January trial term, a logistical exercise that meant a dozen or more round trips by Sheriff's Office vans along the six-mile route.

If all goes as planned for the May trial term, the inmates on the trial term list will only have to be walked down a corridor to a courtroom within the jail.

Each week, deputies have to move inmates from the jail to the courthouse for sentencings, arraignments, preliminary hearings in Central Court or other courtroom procedures. Last Wednesday, Sheriff Dane Anthony said 25 inmates were driven in from the jail.

"My entire staff is tied up with security issues, transportation issues, the detention cell," Anthony said. Deputies are driving the prisoners, guarding the courtrooms, keeping tabs on inmates in his office's holding cell and often assisting at the metal detectors at three buildings.


Having the inmates listed for the trial term appear in court at the prison will mean less travel and reduced risk of a prisoner trying to make a break, Anthony said.

On Wednesday, a defendant was sentenced before Judge Richard Walsh and accepted into the State Intermediate Punishment (SIP) program. It was routine in many respects, except the defendant was in the state prison in Camp Hill, Pa., and making his court appearance on a television monitor.

As the judge, defense attorney and assistant district attorney addressed sentencing issues raised in the hearing, a camera atop the monitor swung from one to the other, and they also appeared picture-within-a-picture on the screen. Deputy Court Administrator Gale Kendall served as the director for this courtroom drama, moving the camera with a handheld remote.

"We only do this for SIP sentences at this point," Assistant District Attorney Jeremiah Zook said. Prisoners have to be evaluated at the prison before they can be accepted into the SIP program, so it makes sense not to run them back and forth between the state prison, county jail and courthouse, he said.

At this time, state prison inmates facing sentencing and not being considered for SIP can be sentenced by video, but only at their request, County Court Administrator Neil Burkholder said.

Video conferencing and conducting some courtroom proceedings at the jail will become more common in the future, Burkholder said. There were seven video conferences in January, Kendall said, and three were scheduled on Wednesday's sentencing list.

Moving one prisoner from Camp Hill involves two deputies, a van, gas and the risk that the prisoner will attempt an escape, Burkholder said. He estimated the one-way cost at between $150 and $200.

Moving an inmate from the Albion state prison in Erie County can cost $1,000 or more.

In saving just a few trips, the video conferencing system in his office will pay for itself, Public Defender Michael Toms said. After working out some technical bugs on a recent Thursday, the system was up and running, allowing him and an assistant public defender to have conferences with eight inmates without the attorneys leaving their office or the prisoners leaving the jail.

"I've always been someone who preferred sitting face-to-face" with a client because it gives a better feel for the veracity of what the defendant is saying, he said.

That was possible at the old prison, but at the new jail that opened last year, the attorney and client are separated by a glass partition and communicate over telephone handsets, and the lawyers have to take notes on a narrow shelf, Toms said. The video conferencing system, under the circumstances, is the best way to go, he said.

The courtroom at the jail is a scaled-down version of what one sees in the courthouse. There is the judge's bench, a witness stand, defense and prosecution tables and a small office behind the bench. Seating for family members, witnesses or other interested parties is extremely limited. There

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