Experts debate merits of video conferencing for court proceedings

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PHILADELPHIA -- One defendant asked if he could have an ice cream cake at his next court appearance, since it fell on his 20th birthday. Another, locked up for attempting to steal a backpack worth $8.53, had been in jail for retail theft five times in the last year.

A third man had been stabbed in a Chinese restaurant, then staggered up the street bleeding profusely. For collapsing in someone's home, he was charged with attempted trespass and attempted burglary and, because he had three open cases pending trial, held on $10,000 bail.

Accusations, explanations and excuses all paraded through District Judge Francis Rebstock's basement courtroom on this ordinary morning -- and yet not a single defendant was present at the Criminal Justice Center room.

That's because all stayed in police districts around the city and communicated with the magistrate by a two-way video hookup. Philadelphia's judicial system has used video transmission for preliminary arraignments, like those Judge Rebstock was conducting, since 1996. But lately, the city has expanded the use of video screens for many other procedures, including traffic violations, guilty pleas, stipulated trials and negotiated sentencings.

Some criminal justice experts worry that defendants are being shortchanged by the drive for efficiency, citing an Illinois study that showed that judges made harsher decisions when faced with a video screen rather than an in-person defendant. But court officials praise the technology for reducing costs and speeding up the judicial process.

A 2011 study by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts claimed that Philadelphia saves $550,000 a month by avoiding transporting prisoners from jails to courtrooms, at an average cost of $79 per trip from a local facility and $350 per trip from a state institution.

Statewide, the study said, more than 15,700 video court proceedings monthly in Pennsylvania added up to $1.7 million in savings.

"If it was up to me, and it's not, I would like to do all guilty pleas via video," said Michael Spaziano, the director of courtroom operations for Pennsylvania's First Judicial District.

The court system has matched this enthusiasm with dollars. From 2008 to 2011, Pennsylvania added 488 videoconferencing units at a cost of $4.2 million. Philadelphia recently received a federal grant to install video technology in four to eight more courtrooms in the Criminal Justice Center, at a cost of about $20,000 per courtroom.

Advocates say video hearings help defendants avoid unnecessary days in jail, in a city where most court cases take 120 days or more to resolve. (New York City and San Diego resolve almost half their cases in 10 days, according to a study by Pew Charitable Trusts.)

The research initiative said a new focus on resolving traffic court issues, often via video hookup, during defendants' stays in jail for other crimes cut the number of defendants spending extra days in jail due to traffic charges from about 1,500 in 2008 to 859 in 2010.

But not all are as comfortable with showing defendants on screen rather than bringing them in person in court.

"If you remove the defendant from the room and consider his bond via this remote hookup, it's going to adversely affect his interest," said Locke Bowman, a Northwestern University law professor.

Northwestern researchers found in 2008 that the average bail set by judges in Chicago's Bond Court had risen 65 percent since Cook County started using video technology for bail hearings in 1999. For cases that had live hearings, the average bail showed no significant increase.

The Cook County court announced the day after the findings were released that it would return to holding all bond hearings in person.

But outside of Chicago, the study made few waves.

"People should be outraged about it. It's easy to be lulled into acceptance of something that everybody assures the public is good enough and has all kinds of advantages in terms of efficiency and safety," Mr. Bowman said. "It shouldn't be going on anywhere."

Philadelphia court administrators say that they are aware of the Northwestern study but that there have been no significant protests against the practice in Pennsylvania. They point out that aside from preliminary arraignments, defendants can always request in-person appearances before a judge or can halt proceedings in order to talk to their lawyer by telephone.

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