R.I. Expands Video Court Sessions; Critics Dubious

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Top Rhode Island officials touted the expanded use of video conferencing yesterday, saying the two-way audio/video communication will allow courts to cut down on the time delays, costs, and risks involved in transporting prisoners, the Providence Journal reports. Gov. Donald Carcieri said video conferencing is needed to reduce the number of inmates transported each day from the Adult Correctional Institutions to the Garrahy Judicial Complex, where the cellblock is overcrowded.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams said the judiciary is spending $50,000 on new video conferencing equipment, and the state is expecting to save $100,000 a year in the cost of prisoner transport and Sheriff’s Department overtime. “As other states have found, the use of enhanced video conferencing is a better method of getting through the increasingly high volume of cases,” Williams said. “Last year alone, 230,000 cases were disposed of in this jurisdiction.”

Steven Brown of the American Civil Liberties Union said he has no problem with video conferences for simple matters like determining a defendant’s lawyer, but he objected using video for arraignments, where defendants hear the charges against them and enter a plea. “Clearly, there is a difference between long-distance arraignments and other criminals proceedings and those done face-to-face,” he said. Chief Public Defender John J. Hardiman said said he would have “major concerns” if video conferencing is “used for arraignments because the judge determines a person’s liberty. You can size people up better in person. There is probably more of a dialogue in person, and people are more relaxed than they are being on a screen.”

Williams said the courts do plan to use video conferencing in arraignments. But he said judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers discuss which cases will involve video, and he said defendants usually enter not guilty pleas at arraignments. “I don’t think defendants will be adversely affected,” he said. “If there is any indication of a lack of understanding by the defendant or a risk that some right might be abrogated, you can always continue it so the prisoner is brought into the courtroom.”

Link: http://www.projo.com/news/content/projo_20040408_video8.2860f7.html

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