Video Hearings

02/26/2014
Oftentimes a bail hearing or an appearance takes just a few minutes, yet the offender—and the sheriff’s deputy or other staff—may spend half a day getting to the courthouse and waiting for the offender’s chance in front of the judge.
Transporting inmates between jail and court was an easy task back in the old days when the lockup was down the hall, states the webpage of Nefsis, a Brother company. Today, administrators for district courts, cities and jails face an increasingly challenging burden of providing physically safe and secure transport—for inmates and staff—between widespread facilities.
 
Overburdened courts and busy attorneys throughout the country are realizing that video conferencing can indeed help to speed the legal process by enabling deposition and arraignment testimony to take place outside of the courtroom via video, says Nefsis, which offers a software-based solution that runs on standard PCs and operates over shared TCP/IP-based networks.
 
Video technology is now powering one-to-one and multiparty video visitation in prisons and courts. Through a joint partnership with the N.J. Department of Corrections, the Administrative Office of the Courts, Office of the Public Defender, the State Parole Board and private vendors, a system-wide and alternative approach to criminal justice proceedings has been implemented in New Jersey successfully.
Major objectives for the N.J. Video Teleconferencing Program include providing systemwide access to the inmate population for criminal justice systems at all levels, state, county, local and federal, and enabling each to conduct business in a more efficient manner, according to Nefsis.
 
Its Video Teleconferencing Program, especially for inmates in the Edna Mahan Correction Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey, and the New Community Corporation's Harmony House in Newark allow inmates to connect with their children who otherwise may not get to see their moms.
 
The City Court and 14th Judicial District Court in Lake Charles, La., are other good examples of how IP-based video conferencing technology from Nefsis can accelerate the judicial process by allowing judges to hold court proceedings, either arraignments or "Assignment of Counsel," remotely which eliminates the need to transport prisoners to and from the courthouse or requiring judges and minute clerks, who record the proceedings, to travel to the jail.
 
Prior to using the Nefsis solution (formerly called e/pop), the 14th Judicial District Court utilized an expensive traditional point-to-point hardware-based video conferencing system that was complex to use and required expensive peripherals to increase the audio quality in the cinder block room where inmates were arraigned, the company notes. The District installed the system on a standard PC server at the courthouse, and it connects to remote sites via Frame Relay. Conference traffic is secure as all traffic routes over their private network.
 
This video conferencing software was selected in 2009 as a replacement in part because it uses readily available, low-cost and off-the-shelf PC-based audio and video peripherals. In particular, it was a good choice because of the wide variety of 3rd party peripherals including specialized echo-cancelling microphones that worked in cinder block rooms. It was also cost-effective because it is a software-based solution that runs on standard PCs and operates over shared TCP/IP-based networks, without requiring dedicated lines or specialized video switching equipment. IP-based video conferencing utilizes the TCP/IP network protocol to connect users, generally two or more, between remote locations—either public or private Internet connections. It also includes features that allow IT staff to set encryption standards, such as SSL or TLS, standards used by e-commerce, online retailers, and banks for secure transmission of passwords, credit cards, and other sensitive data.
 
After installing the system, the District and the City Court in Lake Charles increased arraignments from approximately eight to 30-50 per week. They replaced a traditional, point-to-point video conferencing system that cost more than $30,000 with inexpensive standard audio and video peripherals and PCs found in any retail electronics store. The new IP-based video conferencing system is easy to use, requires little or no training and minimal system maintenance, according to Nefsis.
Invaluable Net Results
 
Moving Northeast, Cobb County Sheriff’s Office, in Marietta, Ga., has a large jail, which averages about 1,600 inmates daily. For the past five years the department has used video for inmate visitation, certain types of court hearings and internally for certain meetings, according to Col. Donald Bartlett, director of the Detention Division. While “probably the biggest impact has been from inmate visitation,” he says, “having court hearings over video has also resulted in significant cost savings and better security.”
 
Hearings often take just a few minutes, and most of the Sheriff’s Office’s preliminary and various status hearings and motions are conducted over video. “This allows the judge to remain at the court (even in his office if he chooses) and our inmates at the jail,” he notes. In addition to the obvious security benefit, is also allows the judge to be more spontaneous in scheduling hearings and has allowed the judicial process to move more quickly. Multiple parties can be accommodated at multiple locations, eliminating backups as inmates don’t need to be physically moved, and streamlining the flow of appearances.
 
Offenders are accommodated by two large stations in the jail, one at the Visitor’s Center where the public can interact at the discretion of the judge, and several other portable units are spread throughout the Sheriff’s Office. At the courthouse, a number of units are spread throughout the facility and software licenses have been purchased for 50 to 100 implementations on individual PCs, notes Bartlett. 
When looking to purchase the system, Bartlett says they looked for quality, flexibility and price.  They eventually settled on a VGSI video conferencing system from Tandberg (the company was taken over by Cisco Systems in 2011). 
On the visitation side, they use Black Creek’s IP Web Visitor for visitation, whereby voice and video streams are fully digitized, synchronized, encrypted and configured for transmission over conventional data networks and over the Internet using TCP/IP transmission standards. The system rides on the County network, he says, and while they had periodically experienced issues with bandwidth they were able to address this by assigning priority to the video calls. 
 
Bartlett says overall they have been pleased with the system. Some of the key advantages have been the ease of use (“Once everything is set up, the system is fairly easy for the end user…it is just like making a phone call.”); the flexibility of control (“Judges like having the ability to use their individual desktop and the ability to control who can join and who can speak.”); and the transmission quality (“The video quality is very good once we worked out the network issue.”)
 
While cost of such a system for a large facility is not inexpensive and there is an annual upkeep, says Bartlett, making the purchase pays off quickly. He believes they recouped the cost in about two years. And the savings go even deeper. “While it is difficult to put a cost on improved security or moving cases more rapidly through the system—the net result is invaluable.”
 
Open Source Components
In Crown Point, Ind., Lake County, the second largest county in the state, is expected to go live in February with a video system for its Superior Court-Criminal Division. Its four criminal courts have an average of 40 inmates total who are seen in the court on a daily basis—and oftentimes just to set a new hearing date or a bond reduction—just a quick hearing to change the minutiae, says Mark Price, bailiff, Lake Superior Court-Criminal Division 4. 
 
While the Lake County Jail is connected to the Court, offenders still need to be walked over with escorts, a five-hour process that begins at 5:45 in the morning. There’s “a whole lot of movement,” with inmates coming over in different shifts with sheriff’s deputies, says Price. Paid attorneys go first and offenders sit in a holding tank for perhaps five hours “doing a whole lot of nothing.”
 
Now with an 80-inch LED screen in each felony court, 19-inch monitors at defense and prosecution tables, and the judge equipped with a 24-inch monitor, there’s a lot less running around. Four cameras and a quad screen can depict the four main parties, and the defendant can also see who is testifying.
 
For ease of compatibility and cost effectiveness, the court uses open source (OS) equipment, explains Price, which allows them to be more flexible in outfitting the courtrooms. Using OS equipment they can take “a  Panasonic Blue Ray and an Onkyo receiver and they should be able to talk to each other.” Thus, the Telmate video system at the Sheriff’s Office is plugging into the OS system at the Court and they can “work and talk.” Telmate also offers video visits over the Internet via Web browser at the jail.
 
Price reports the cost to install the video technology was less than $75 thousand per courtroom, yet the amount of payback was great. It takes “very little time before [the ROI] comes back, plus, ultimately, it enhances the safety of all involved.” J