Video conferencing replaces some court appearances

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(Host) The District Court in Bennington has a new player in the courtroom these days: a television. The Court is staging a year long test of the use of video conferencing as an alternative to transporting prisoners for brief court appearances.

How well it’s working depends on whom you ask, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) Monday is the big arraignment day in Bennington District Court. It’s when people charged with crimes over the weekend must appear before the judge to enter a plea. It’s also when terms of release are set.

But not all the defendants are actually in the courtroom. Some are in the Marble Valley Correctional Facility in Rutland, making their appearance through interactive television.

A television monitor sits on a table on one side of the courtroom. A camera above the monitor allows the person on the screen to see the prosecution, the defense and presiding Judge David Suntag.

The defendant is a youngish woman. She’s been in jail since Friday, when she was arrested for repeated failures to report to her probation officer. She’s sitting in a small cinderblock room. Everyone agrees the acoustics leave a lot to be desired.

(Judge) “Ms. Barber can you hear me?”
(Barber) “Yes.”
(Judge) “Well if at some point you can’t hear what’s going on or something, raise your hand so we can make sure you do all right?”

(Keese) Bennington is the only court in Vermont where videoconference hearings are taking place. It’s an experiment, prompted by the cost – and potential safety issues – of transporting prisoners for routine court dates.

Last year, at the legislature’s request the Vermont Supreme Court drew up guidelines for a year-long trial. The court specified the circumstances in which videoconferencing will or won’t occur. It can’t be used in jury drawings or trials, for example. Bennington was chosen because it already had equipment from an earlier video experiment. It’s also a long drive from the nearest jail.

Bennington County State’s Attorney William Wright has worked in Florida where video court hearings are common. He says it’s an idea whose time has come.

(Wright) “There are many court appearances where not a lot substantively occurs and it’s not cost-effective to transport them over two plus hours down and back for a five minute conference. If there’s testimony involved, the defendant has the right to appear in person. Most often there is not testimony at arraignment.”

(Keese) Public Defender Frederick Bragdon sees it differently.

(Bragdon) “I think it’s terrible. It’s clearly a governmental decision that’s based upon the cost to the government and not to the individuals who haven’t been found guilty yet.”

(Keese) Bragdon says it’s dehumanizing to deprive a defendant of personal contact. He complains that if he wants to confer privately with his client during the hearing, he has to whisper over the phone. If video-conferencing is such a good idea, Bragdon argues, it should be available for un-incarcerated defendants too. Many of them have to miss a day of work to come to court.

(Bragdon) “But they don’t. They only do it for people in jail as if they’re in some special category that is worse than everyone else.”

(Keese) Speaking in his chambers, Bennington Judge David Suntag agrees that these are important points.

(Suntag) “I think those are the kinds of issues we’ve got to keep in mind. We’re in a society that looks on images on screens in different ways than we look at people in person. I don’t think it necessarily means that we shouldn’t be doing it. But we should be aware that that can happen.”

(Keese) There are also questions about cost effectiveness, and technological and logistical issues to be worked out. It takes a lot of staff time to operate the video conferencing equipment.

Back in court, Suntag is deciding to give the woman on the screen another chance to meet the conditions of her probation.

(Judge) “Has she done any time before?
(Attorney) “No, judge.”
(Judge) “One more time, and only one more time.”

(Keese) Suntag looks at her, but she keeps her head down. Would his lecture have been more effective if the woman had actually been in the courtroom? Suntag can’t talk about specific cases.

(Suntag) “I think there are going to be hearings, cases, people who are better off in court and not on the video. And we need to figure out which ones they’re going to be over time and I hope we are going to be able to do it so that we can use it appropriately.”

(Defendant) “I can’t hear you…”
(Clerk) “Marie’s going to call your mother. We’re going to fax up your conditions and you need to push that button behind you to get out of there.”

(Keese) Suntag says he expects a full discussion of all the issues before video conferencing is – or isn’t – recommended statewide.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan

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