The Wired Courtroom: Online Justice During the Pandemic

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Multimedia courtroom in Suffolk County, NY. Photo by Jake Wark via Flickr

The nation’s courts never have been noted for widespread use of technology to process criminal cases.

But the coronavirus crisis is forcing judges to make more use of videotechnology in order to avoid the justice system’s grinding to a halt during the national shutdown.

The expanding use of video to resolve low-level cases is helping to cut the numbers of inmates confined in close quarters in local jails, a webinar sponsored by the Council on Criminal Justice was told Thursday.

The council, a new national think tank on justice policy, invited speakers from California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania to discuss the impact of the nation’s health crisis on the justice system.

To be sure, technology can’t keep all criminal justices cases going,  several speakers cautioned.

“We have to keep the crowds down,” said California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, noting that her state has had to shut down jury trials, in which up to 300 potential jurors normally might be called to sit together in the jury selection process.

What courts can do, Canti-Sakauye said, is to “do everything we can do remotely,” especially to hold pretrial sessions by videoconference that are aimed at keeping many defendants out of jail pending the disposition of their cases.

California courts already have adopted a temporary, controversial policy eliminating the need for money bail to be posted by many suspects in low-level crimes.

Most state courts are run at the county level, which poses challenges for states with decentralized courts spread over many counties. For such a large state, California has only 58 counties, compared with 159 in Georgia.

Kentucky is using videoconferencing to process criminal cases across its 120 counties.

“We’re doing everything we can to insure access to justice,” said Laurie Dudgeon, director of the state’s court administrative office.

It’s a similar story in Florida, where Melissa Nelson, chief prosecutor in the judicial district based in Jacksonville, says her office’s prosecutors have designated 5,500 cases for potentially “expedited resolution” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because a vast majority of criminal cases are resolved via plea bargains, many charges against jailed defendants can be settled by agreeing that the main penalty will be the time they already have served behind bars, Nelson said.

The Jacksonville jail population has been cut 10 percent during the first few weeks of the lockdown.

It may sound like a simple solution, but one major criminal justice issue well before the coronavirus hit was that many suspects who were jailed after their arrests felt pressure to agree to a plea bargain just to win a release from jail.

keir bradford-Gray

Keir Bradford-Grey. Photo by Victoria Mckenzie/TCR

With fears that COVID-19 will spread quickly through confined populations, which already has happened in jails from New York City’s Rikers Island to Chicago’s Cook County Jail, courts should insure that defendants are not pleading guilty “under duress,” said Keir Bradford-Grey, chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

Still, cases can be disposed of that were not likely to result in a prison sentence, said Bradford-Grey.

Philadelphia has managed to reduce its jail population, which was nearly 4,800 at the beginning of the year by more than 1,000.

This week, however, Bradford-Grey said she planned to withdraw all of her office’s cases pending before one judge who refused to release any inmates because of the virus, reports WHYY Radio.

Kentucky courts have been able to reduce jail populations a “dramatic” 36 percent during the pandemic, said Dudgeon.

The reduction isn’t all because of court action, of course. Because most people are staying at home as recommended, the number of arrests by police also has fallen drastically in Kentucky and elsewhere.

The availability of videoconferencing to handle many pretrial proceedings can be a big help, but Georgia Supreme Court Justice Michael Boggs said it can be a challenge because many courts simply are not prepared to use it.

Meeting Crime Victims’ Needs

Another issue, Boggs said, is that crime victims’ bills of rights in some states require that victims be invited to certain key stages of a case. This might be difficult if a video setup was designed to involve only the prosecution, judge and defense.

Florida’s Nelson agreed that courts may not have been prepared to use technology extensively to handle cases, but “necessity has forced our hand” during the coronavirus lockdown.

If the law requires only that victims be informed of particular steps in a case, technology can help by allowing that to be done by text, Nelson said.

Speakers generally agreed it is a positive development that the crisis is forcing some courts to use technology more than they were accustomed to doing.

It will continue to be a challenge, said California Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, to “strike a balance between defendants’ right to justice and safety in the jail.”

She said lower-court judges need more “real-time data” on the changing conditions of “contagion in the jails.”

Speakers noted that the National Center for State Courts has created a website that offers a state-by-state look at how courts are responding to the pandemic.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

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