Courtroom of the Future Available Today: West Virginia Supreme Court Connects Magistrate and Regional Jails with Videoconferencing

By DeProspero, Kristin | Distance Learning, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Courtroom of the Future Available Today: West Virginia Supreme Court Connects Magistrate and Regional Jails with Videoconferencing


DeProspero, Kristin, Distance Learning


The Supreme Court of Appeals reigns as West Virginia's highest court, hearing appeals from cases decided in circuit courts. Cases include criminal convictions on appeal from magistrate court and administrative agencies. West Virginia is one of only 11 states with a single appellate court, this one encompassing 55 counties and 100 courts. The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia ranks as the busiest appellate court of its type in the country, scheduling 100,000 to 150,000 first appearance hearings a year.

West Virginia technical staff explored using videoconferencing because the regional jail system was spending millions of dollars transporting inmates for initial courtroom appearances. On average, it took 4 to 9 staff hours to transport a prisoner from the jail to the magistrate court for a first appearance hearing. Within the first year of use, videoconferencing saved the state $30 million in transportation costs.

"We needed technology that would make the judicial process more efficient," said Deputy Director for Technology for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Kit Thornton. "Polycom offered a robust solution easy enough to use for courtroom officials and jail staff."

BUILDING THE COURTROOM OF TOMORROW

When the court system first integrated Polycom equipment, the state had no videoconferencing operators on staff and few judges/magistrates were trained on the technology. The court needed a teachable interface and a technical team to manage integration.

The technical team consisted of Billy Blake, a Verizon network integrator, Kit Thorton, Esq. (now deputy director for technology for the Supreme Court of West Virginia), and Fletcher Atkins, (manager of support services). Judge Dan O'Hanlon also played a valuable role in the program, adding direction and funding support, vision, and outreach across the state. The team worked together to develop the network, train staff, and troubleshoot installations.

The state readily accepted the Polycom proposal for the Supreme Court because of the quality of Polycom's IP system. Enduser training, however, raised concern from attorneys and court officials. The image of a judge or magistrate is held in high regard. If a judge cannot use the technology without interruption or flawless interface every time, he or she will refuse to use it.

"Court systems have to use a proven technology backed by a responsive company that will understand unique needs," said Thornton. "Polycom provides this reliability. The interface is intuitive and service and repairs are performed quickly."

"Polycom's solution has far exceeded our expectations," said Blake. "I only hear praise from end users about how easy the Polycom equipment is to use."

USES FOR VIDEOCONFERENCING

The network supports approximately 100 Polycom units connecting nine regional jails and 55 counties throughout West Virginia. Supreme Court technical staff rolls out equipment weekly and plans to add 60-70 units in the next year.

"Every interaction affected by distance now uses videoconferencing-jails, courts, schools, city hall," said Thornton. These include:

* Initial appearance hearings;

* Civil trials-which may include expert witnesses;

* Family courts-used when one family member is incarcerated;

* State Supreme Court-uses videoconferencing for continuing legal education classes at 30 sites;

* Town meetings-allows community members better interaction with the state's legislative branch;

* Education-parole officers use videoconferencing for interviews; and

* Testimony-allows sexually-abused juveniles to testify under statutorily established rules without coming in contact with the defendant.

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