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Published: 4/6/2003

TV touted to trim court costs

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Maumee Municipal Judge Gary Byers tests his arraignment gear on workers at Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio in Stryker, Ohio. Camera equipment and microphones are located under the television set. Maumee Municipal Judge Gary Byers tests his arraignment gear on workers at Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio in Stryker, Ohio. Camera equipment and microphones are located under the television set.
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Every day at the Lucas County jail, dozens of prisoners are chained together and walked over to the Toledo Municipal Court, where they are placed into holding cells until their cases are called.

Each step of the way, they're accompanied by sheriff's deputies who spend a good part of their day making trips back and forth to the jail.

A video conferencing system that allows two-way communications between the jail and local courts for arraignments and initial appearances offers the promise that these prisoner parades could become far less common.

But whether area judges will embrace the proposed system and whether it can save as much money as its backers tout remain to be seen.

“Am I going to use it? Not unless I'm forced to, and I don't think they can,” Lucas County Common Pleas Judge J. Ronald Bowman said. He said he wants to see a prisoner face-to-face so he can size him up and decide which attorney to assign to his case.

Judge Bowman also questions claims by Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, an agency funded by Toledo and Lucas County to review criminal justice matters, that a video conferencing system would save more than $5 million over five years countywide. The jail is so close to the county and municipal courts, he said, that the manpower hours saved couldn't be significant.

The judge isn't the only one questioning the projected savings.

John Alexander, the county's chief of staff, said the justice council's proposal seems to be based on reducing the number of deputies employed by the county.

Video conferencing may reduce the number needed to transport prisoners, he said, but the sheriff's overall staff likely would not decrease.

“It doesn't seem to represent reality,” Mr. Alexander said. “But we have to do a full examination of this before we fully implement the project.”

Despite his reservations about the projected savings, Mr. Alexander thinks video conferencing has merit and could lead to a more efficient operation, especially in municipal courts such as Maumee and Sylvania. His three bosses - the county commissioners - favor exploring the idea and praised a presentation given by the justice council last month.

Commissioner Maggie Thurber, a member of the coordinating council, said she's encouraged the use of such a system for years and believes the costs saved by not having to transport prisoners to and from the various municipal courts and Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio in Stryker, Ohio, could be substantial.

“If you don't have to pay the costs of transporting those individuals, then you're doing something good for the taxpayers,” Ms. Thurber said.

Bob Mossing, a planner with Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, said the projected savings are based on a preliminary study and will be firmed up as the project progresses.

Even if large savings are never realized, he said the video system should be efficient enough to pay for itself and could alleviate the need to add deputies as the courts get busier.

“Transporting prisoners is a big business,” Mr. Mossing said.

The estimated cost of the 42 video units will be about $480,000. Plans call for units to be placed in the Toledo, Sylvania, Maumee, and Oregon municipal courts, the Lucas County Courthouse, the county jail, and CCNO.

Toledo Municipal Court Judges Francis X. Gorman and Gene Zmuda said they're interested in experimenting with video conferencing.

But Judge Gorman said he's worried that the system might limit the ability of the public to watch the proceedings and limit the access that defense lawyers would get to defendants.

John Thebes, a criminal defense attorney, agreed. He said he understands the desire to save money but is worried that it might cut down needed contact with his clients.

“I don't think I'm being old-fashioned about it, but I like to have that interaction with my client,” he said.

Before the program gets approved by the various jurisdictions, an experimental pilot program will be installed soon at Maumee Municipal Court.

Maumee Municipal Judge Gary Byers said saving manpower costs and the transportation expenses makes sense, and added that it also will save drive time for defense attorneys based in Toledo.

“Technology is a great thing, but making it do something useful is a challenge,” Judge Byers said.

The technology for video arraignments has been available for some time. Bowling Green Municipal Court has been using video conferencing since 1989 with prisoners in the Wood County jail, according to Chief Deputy Mark Hummer of the Wood County Sheriff's Office. He said he thinks the system saves money and increases public safety.

“When you have high-risk prisoners, they never have a window of opportunity to try to do something stupid,” Deputy Hummer said.

Williams County is in the early stages of using a similar system. Common Pleas Judge Anthony Gretick used it for the first time last month and was impressed with his ability to communicate with prisoners while conducting routine hearings.

He said it also freed up bed space at CCNO faster because he was able to release some of the inmates on bond without having to transport them to and from the courthouse.

“It's been very convenient,” he said. “I think that as the usage expands [to other courts], we'll have to pay more attention to our scheduling.”

Lucas County Common Pleas Judges James Bates and Charles Doneghy said they are also concerned about scheduling and think there are a lot of questions to answer before the program is implemented.

Judge Bates said the county's 10 common pleas judges aren't going to want to wait to conduct hearings if there aren't enough video cameras set up either at the jail or the courthouse.

He also questions whether there would be any savings by not transporting prisoners to court.

“I would think our courthouse would want each of the courtrooms connected,” said Judge Bates, who is the chairman of the board of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

“If we have to stand in line to wait until other courts get done with their hearings, there will be all sorts of problems,” he said.



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