Meadville Tribune

Local News

June 20, 2011

Headed to court without heading to courtroom

MEADVILLE — Having to go to court doesn’t necessarily mean a trip to a courtroom for some persons charged with a crime these days.

Video conference technology is used for preliminary arraignments and some other court proceedings, allowing defendants often to remain at a correctional facility or booking center and appear before the judge via a TV screen rather than physically in a courtroom.

The use of video conference technology is saving Pennsylvania taxpayers an estimated $21 million a year, according to a new survey by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts’ Office of Judicial Security.

In 2003, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court amended rules of criminal procedure to allow video conferences in court procedures not involving a defendant’s constitutional rights to confront witnesses.

Crawford County courts first began using it a number of years ago, according to President Judge Anthony Vardaro.

“It’s been a good system for us,” said Vardaro. “We began with the new jail (in Saegertown) to save on transportation costs to the courthouse (in Meadville).”

It’s about an 18-mile round trip between the courthouse in Meadville and the county jail in Saegertown.

“It saves money not only on the cost transportation and mileage on vehicles, but it’s better for security for the courts and inmates,” said Vardaro.

The survey by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts’ Office of Judicial Security found that on average it cost a Pennsylvania county $73 to transport a defendant to and from a local facility and $588 to transport a defendant to and from a state correctional institution.

For Crawford County, the cost is $45.88 to transport a defendant to and from a local facility and $544.04 to transport a defendant to and from a state correctional institution, according to the survey.

Crawford County uses the system about 50 times a month, with about six  video conferences from a local facility for every one where a defendant is in a state facility. According to the survey, Crawford County is saving $5,689.36 a month in defendant transportation costs.

Courts can’t use a video conference for some matters like an evidence hearing or a parole violation hearing, Vardaro said. But a video conference may be used for initial arraignment on a criminal charge or parole violation, Vardaro said.

It also may be used for warrant proceedings, bail and sentencing hearings, he said.

The court proceedings are conducted with defendants located in state correctional institutions, county and local prisons, booking centers, state police barracks and other facilities like juvenile detention centers, shelters and state hospitals.

It saves the county money as Pennsylvania will transport prisoners with adequate notice to a state correctional institution like Albion or Cambridge Springs, said John Shuttleworth, county court administrator.

“It’s cheaper than having our deputies going down to Philadelphia or Rockview to get a (state) prisoner for a (Crawford County court hearing),” Shuttleworth. “We give the state notice, they bring the prisoner back to a state facility and we set up a video conference hearing.”

Magisterial District Judge Rita Marwood said the county’s five minor court judges also like to make use of it when they can — especially for offices like hers in Linesville and that of Magisterial District Judge Amy Nicols in Titusville.

“It makes sense when we’re on call (for criminal arraignments after normal office hours),” said Marwood.

As an example, Marwood said if officers in Titusville made an arrest and she was the on-call magistrate, police had to make a more than 60-mile, one-way trip to Linesville to have the prisoner arraigned.

With the use of a video conference system, authorities only have to go to the county jail in Saegertown and the on-call magistrate can go to the respective office.

Sheriff Nick Hoke also is a fan of video conference use.

“It means we don’t have to send two deputies out (to pick up prisoners),” he said. “They’re not out on the road transporting inmates or having to be out in bad weather with them.”

A video conference also saves the sheriff manpower since one or two deputies then aren’t needed in the courtroom for a proceeding, said Hoke. The sheriff’s department is in charge of courtroom security.

“They can be out doing other duties such as serving court papers,” Hoke said.

The video conference system isn’t just used for criminal procedures, though.

It may be used for family law cases or support cases where one of the parties involved is out of state, Vardaro said.

Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.

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