Teleconferencing: Making Court Hearings Safer, More Efficient
By Court Operations Executive Director Diane Pawlowicz and
Judicial Informations Systems Executive Director Mark Bittner

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Picture a judge in a courtroom, talking with a defendant who is miles away in a detention center or correctional facility. The judge and others in the courtroom can see the detainee on a television monitor. The detainee can see the judge on a monitor at the detention facility. The cameras can pan to other portions of the room, and zoom in as needed. The judge and detainee can hear each other clearly. During this exchange, a judge may review a bail bond, decide to release the individual who was brought in on a bench warrant, conduct an arraignment, or hear an inmate grievance appeal.

Teleconferencing technology is not exactly new: Bail review hearings have been conducted by video teleconferencing in Maryland’s District Courts and some Circuit Courts for at least 15 years. As technology changes and improves, the Judiciary has been studying new programs to replace older equipment where needed, and to expand the use of teleconferencing for other types of hearings where feasible.

Over the past three years, Judicial Information Systems (JIS) has been working with Maryland courts to conduct several pilot programs to determine if various types of hearings can be conducted fairly by teleconference, and whether the new equipment works as expected. The following pilot projects were begun in accordance with an administrative order issued by the chief judge of  the Court of Appeals in 2009:

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Inmate Grievance Appeal Hearings (November 2010)

Ex parte Temporary Protective Order Hearings (December 2010)

Consults with Children in Need of Assistance (CINA) (March 2011)

Bail Review Hearings (May-August 2013)

Bench Warrant and Arraignment Hearings (June 2013)

Bench Warrant and Body Attachment Hearings (June 2013)

Teleconferencing cannot and should not replace court appearances for many types of hearings. It does, however, offer some distinct advantages for those hearings that occur early in a case, and for which there is minimal requirement for attorney/client discussion during the hearing. These advantages include enhanced safety, reduced costs, and improved efficiency.

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Enhanced Safety

One of the most often cited reasons to conduct certain hearings by teleconference is enhanced safety.

For detention and correctional facility staff, opportunities for attempted escape or other disturbances while in transport or at the courthouse are eliminated. Court staff, judges, and the public are also safer since detainees are not moved in and out of holding cells at the court, escorted through public hallways and appearing in the courtroom with other detainees. Defendants, too, may be safer, since it is easier to keep co-defendants and gang members separated in a detention facility than at the courthouse.

Petitioners for protective orders at the Circuit and District Courts in Montgomery County, Rockville location, may benefit from reduced security risks for ex parte temporary protective order hearings conducted via video conference because they do not have to travel between the courts and the advocates located at the Family Justice Center.

Reduced Costs

Detention centers and correctional facilities probably benefit the most in terms of reduced costs. They save on the cost of gasoline, a possible reduction in the number of vans that need to be purchased and maintained, and reduction in the number of security personnel needed to transport detainees.

Courts gain in terms of facility maintenance and space. Fewer defendants and detention center personnel in the courthouse means less wear and tear on the facility. There are a reduced number of defendants in the lock-up areas, and smaller courtrooms can be used, thus freeing up larger courtrooms for other dockets. In addition, fewer sheriffs are needed for security in the courtroom.

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Efficiency

Another significant benefit of video conferencing is the efficiencies gained by the courts, the detention centers, attorneys, and detainees/petitioners. Video conference hearings are generally scheduled at a set time during the day, but can also be heard on an ‘as needed’ basis since the equipment can be set up quickly. “The convenience factor is huge,” one judge stated.
When detainees are transported, there is the possibility of delays due to traffic problems. With video conferencing, the docket can begin on time. A public defender said, “We have certainty and predictability, and that leads to efficiency overall.”

Equipment

The new equipment has been given high marks in terms of audio and video quality, and reliability. The new technology makes connecting to the remote sites much easier, and connections are noted to be much more reliable and trouble-free.

Next Steps

Chief Judge Barbera will review the current teleconference pilot programs to determine whether the pilots should be expanded to other jurisdictions and possibly other case types. The Standing Committee on Rules and Procedures will make necessary revisions to rules to implement videoconferencing. Watch for news in future issues of Justice Matters.