When Judge James Jensen takes the bench in his Lucas County Common Pleas courtroom this afternoon, he'll be accepting pleas, appointing attorneys, and setting trial dates - all without any defendants present.
Using cameras, monitors, and microphones linked up to a room in the county jail, judges in the downtown courthouse will begin a weekly rotation of video arraignments. Six of the 10 General Division judges have opted to participate in the bi-weekly arraignments - held every Monday and Thursday afternoon - which many hope will cut both the costs and risks associated with transporting prisoners.
"The technology is here and it's being done in outlying courts. It will eventually be a part of the court culture," Judge Jensen said.
Municipal courts in Maumee and Oregon have been conducting arraignments for those in custody at the Lucas County jail for several years. Sylvania and Toledo officials are currently evaluating the process.
Already twice this year, the equipment was used in Common Pleas Court for hearings that involved inmates incarcerated in state prison. By conducting the hearings via video conference, judges were able to limit the costs associated with transporting the inmates back to Lucas County and housing them locally.
According to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, 10 counties currently connect via technology to the state's 32 prisons and related facilities, including Lucas, Cuyahoga, Greene, Warren, Union, Darke, Clinton, Ross, Richland, and Scioto.
Jail Administrator Jim O'Neal said that locally, communities such as Maumee and Oregon have already begun to see a long-term savings in transportation costs. Although he doesn't expect similar savings for the Common Pleas Court, he said the county is hopeful that fewer people being transported means deputies currently assigned to the task of transportation could be reassigned to other deputy duties.
No dollar amount has been attached to potential savings but those associated with the courts say that the benefits of increased security cannot be enumerated.
"We hope to save some volume and save some man-hours, and the less people going in and out of the jail means it is more secure," Mr. O'Neal said.
To accommodate the new video docket, a room was outfitted on the jail's fifth floor that will be solely dedicated to common pleas arraignments. In addition to having the video equipment necessary to communicate with the courtrooms, the space has an area available so that inmates can speak privately to their newly appointed attorneys.
Attorney James Neumeyer of the Lucas County Public Defender's Office said that, like all criminal dockets, a public defender will be present each time a defendant is arraigned via video. He said the attorneys will work with court officials to solve "any potential conflicts that come up."
"A lot of this is going to be a learning process but we're all going to work at it," he said.
"We're cooperating with the system," he added. "Given that the judges are going to be appointing on these video arraignments, we'll have someone there at every arraignment. We'll figure out the way it works as we go along."
Video has been used in the courts in most states for at least a decade. Authority to use video for court proceedings, in lieu of a personal appearance by the defendant, comes through statutes as well as state and local court rules.
In Michigan, state law was changed effective January, 2007, to eliminate the defendant's right to be physically present for an arraignment. The change opened the door for the use of video arraignments statewide.
Judge Jensen said the higher courts have upheld the use of video arraignments as long as a defendant is able to see and hear the courtroom proceedings. Potentially, other aspects of the court process could be done via video, including any pretrial and motion hearings, he said.
Pleas and sentencings will continue to be done in person.
The system could also be made available for civil proceedings, Judge Jensen said, noting that often experts travel lengthy distances to testify. "If they have the capability on their end, we could cut the costs by having them testify over video," he said.
Common Pleas Court has two video-conference systems available to the courtrooms, paid for by a grant through the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio in Stryker. More than half of the 10 courtrooms are currently wired for video conferencing and the rest will be completed by workers in the county's facilities department.
The six judges involved in the video arraignment schedule will arraign defendants and handle fugitive cases for each of the other judges participating in the rotation.
Judges are able to opt out with certain criminal cases if they decide they want to handle the case from start to finish. They may also select the assigned defense attorney and bond amount by informing the arraigning judge in advance, Court Administrator Jean Atkin said.
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