Tech Success: Keeping up appearances
Videoconferencing has its day in court
An initial l appearance in court is generally a straightforward event. A suspect is informed of the charges against him, bail is set and other issues are addressed.
However, in largely rural West Virginia, transporting a suspect to court often is anything but straightforward, said Kit Thornton, deputy director for technology for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
"Sometimes the county or the place where the person is arrested can be as far as an hour away or longer from the magistrate court, and over difficult roads," Thornton said. "In bad weather, they might not be able to make the trip at all.
In an effort to make transporting a suspect to court safer and more efficient, West Virginia officials turned to videoconferencing.
On average, first-appearance hearings required four to nine staff hours to transport a prisoner from jail to one of the state's magistrate courts, Thornton said. Doing those hearings via video saved the state about $30 million in transportation costs in its first year, he said.
Through Verizon Inc., West Virginia officials purchased and installed a videoconferencing system from Polycom Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif.
West Virginia's court appearance inefficiencies were typical of those of many other states, said Kristin DeProspero, Polycom's state and local government director. States increasingly are turning to video to solve the problem, she said.
For West Virginia, Polycom VSX 7000 videoconferencing units are the main hardware for the system and are installed in the state's jails and courtrooms, DeProspero said.
The VSX essentially is a video camera, a display and speakers. The system runs over an Integrated Services Digital Network or, as in West Virginia, an IP network.
The system requires a codec to digitize an analog image for a standard network, DeProspero said. The system relies on a standard H.323 protocol for transmission.
The whole system is dependent on bandwidth availability at every endpoint.
"Typically, the main obstacle is network availability and how to get it to these remote, rural locations," DeProspero said. "You have to look at how to get that last mile into a courtroom, for example."
For West Virginia, T1 lines had to be installed at every county courthouse, Thornton said.
Another obstacle is judges, and courtroom and prison staff who may not be technologically savvy. The system has to be easy to use, Thornton said. In West Virginia, as in most places, there are no resources to have on staff one person to deal exclusively with the videoconferencing system.
"You have to have a system that can meet the judges' needs without committing them to becoming technicians," Thornton said. "You have to have a system that can more or less be run intuitively."
Training on the system takes about an hour, Thornton said. For a courthouse installation, he recommends finding at least one courtroom employee who feels comfortable with the technology to be the point person in operating it.
The Polycom system comes with a wireless remote control that is used to place calls. It can be programmed with speed dial to easily initiate conferences.
"To make a call with the remote, for example, you just push a single green button," De Prospero said. "Depending on how the administrator set up the speed dial, it can be extraordinarily easy."
Often, existing equipment can be integrated into the system, she said.
"A courtroom's public address system, for example, can be integrated into the system, as opposed to having separate speakers," she said.
Since the system has been in place, its uses have continued to increase, Thornton said. Because the system is in all of West Virginia's correctional facilities, it often is used for petitions when a prisoner objects to his detention, he said.
"We even use it a lot in civil trials," Thornton said. "We bring in expert witnesses [this way] so litigants don't have to pay absurd fees to ship in a witness. We've used it for a witness from Singapore."
The court uses the system to broadcast continuing legal education classes, and other state agencies use it for meetings.
Federal agencies such as the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Agriculture are adopting the technology, DeProspero said.
Thornton knew the system was successful when it was finally installed for a holdout county that had adamantly refused it.
"I waited two weeks for them to get used to doing their initial appearance when they wanted to or needed to, rather than when the deputies could get them there physically," Thornton said. "Then I called up the fellow who gave us the most resistance and said, 'We've got some upgrades we need to do, I'm going to take your system down for a couple of days.' He said, 'You can't do that!' That shows people get comfortable with this quickly."
If you have an innovative solution that you recently installed in a government agency, contact Staff Writer Doug Beizer at firstname.lastname@example.org.