Justice Videoconferencing: A Technology Whose Time Has Come

Article excerpt

At its 1998 Winter Conference in San Antonio, the American Correctional Association drafted its policy on technology. The policy acknowledges that technology enhances corrections at all levels by reducing costs while at the same time improving security; and that whenever possible, technology should be used to promote efficiency and effectiveness, and to enhance public, staff and offender safety.

Perhaps the most intriguing technology with worldwide applications in use today is videoconferencing. This tool is now readily available to all criminal justice agencies. With it, we can see and talk to one another from any place around the world, with picture and as clear as if were having a face-to-face conversation. Best of all, this technology is now easy to operate, reliable and, most important, affordable.

The Verdict Is In

Interactive video offers the possibility of exploring innovative applications within corrections, as daily operations become more technologically driven. Already, videoconferencing arraignments and other courtroom applications have improved court security conditions as well as the efficiency and cost of judicial activity.

While security has always posed special problems, the intensity of these problems has increased dramatically in recent years. Loss of respect for authority, lack of civility and an increase in gang-related violence have caused serious courtroom security dilemmas around the country. Physical assaults have occurred in courtrooms between victims and the accused; between principals in hotly contested divorces or child custody cases; and between rival street gang members. Many correctional officers have also been injured while transporting dangerous offenders to hospitals and clinics, and several inmates have escaped during the trip from the jail to the courthouse. We always hope these situations won't occur in our detention centers, institutions or court settings. But we guarantee they won't occur by using interactive video, which allows communication without the threat of violent contact.

Split-screen technology means that the judge, offender, prosecutor, defense counsel and other witnesses can simultaneously speak to each other while the accused observes, secure in a detention center. Thus, the rights of the accused to have a "day in court" are respected while security risks are dramatically reduced.

Videoconferencing technology also can be used in several other problematic areas. For instance, witnesses who may be fearful of a courtroom experience could be questioned without any loss of credibility. A child who has been sexually or physically abused doesn't have to be in the courtroom to give testimony. He would be in a safe room conducive to talking and the testimony could be broadcast. The fear of courtroom trauma for these victims could be greatly ameliorated. Expert witnesses could give their testimony via live video transmission, reducing travel expenses.

Another judicial use of videoconferencing addresses the considerable time it takes prosecutors and defense counsels to visit the accused in a detention setting. Many lawyers spend three or four hours in transit just to talk for a few minutes to detainees. Further, some of the discussions take place in the crowded areas of a detention center with less-than-optimal conditions for privacy. If a defense lawyer or the prosecutor had videoconferencing equipment set up in his office or at the courthouse, he could talk and see the accused privately while the offender remained in a private area of a detention center. This type of system would eliminate transportation problems for lawyers, sheriffs and others who have to provide security. Instead of spending several hours traveling to and from a jail and having to wait for the accused to be brought to the lawyer's visitation area, more time can be spent talking and planning with clients.

Videoconferencing in Corrections

Today, several jurisdictions have installed some form of videoconferencing equipment for court arraignments. …