Video conferencing is finding its way into the courtroom as a way to cut back on transportation costs and maximize a judge’s time in court, but the technology could soon be off-limits in cases involving mental health patients in Florida.
Earlier this month, Florida’s Supreme Court temporarily prohibited the technology for patients held under the Florida Mental Health Act (commonly known as the Baker Act), which allows courts to hold and examine an individual who may have a mental or behavioral disorder for up to 72 hours.
Advocacy groups such as Disability Rights Florida argue that the technology could interfere with a judge’s ability to observe body language in mental health patients, claiming that the only effective way for a judge to observe a patient’s mental state is to “preside in person” during the hearing, according to the Daily Business Review. Moreover, video hearings could pose difficulties for some with mental illness, potentially changing the nature of the proceedings.
"Video conferencing will impair a judge's ability to observe demeanor, which could be central to the fact-finding process," Disability Rights Florida attorneys Peter Prescott Sleasman and Kristen Cooley Lentz wrote in a court filing supporting the plaintiffs, according to the Review.
Palm Beach County, Fla., an opponent to the video conferencing ban, has seven mental health facilities and began remote hearings last year. The court began using the technology to more effectively manage resources in the face of shrinking budgets that limit the number of judges the court is able to add, Jeffrey Colbath, chief judge of Palm Beach County's Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, told the Review.
Despite the controversy, video conferencing solutions are already at work in courtrooms across the country, allowing judges to remotely attend court hearings and cut down on the time it takes to complete due process — saving time and money while increasing safety. Cisco Systems TelePresence has helped Florida courts save hundreds of thousands of dollars in interpreter costs. Moreover, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) saved more than $5 million in two years after launching a video conferencing initiative in 2010 that aimed to equip all courtrooms with the technology.
Local governments are finding these virtual courtroom solutions useful as well. In January, Finney County, Kan., equipped its courts with video conferencing as part of a complete courthouse renovation. The Garden City Telegram reports that by cutting back on transportation costs for inmates, who can now be escorted to a room with a videophone as opposed to a drive to the courthouse, the technology saves taxpayers money.
“The technology pays for itself fairly quickly in the cost savings, the mileage on the vehicles, the tires, the gas, the oil, the maintenance, the staff time to drive over there, drive back, and so on,” Kurtis Jacobs, district court administrator, told the paper.
Those opposed to the technology feel that it takes away a mental health patient’s ability to fully grasp the legal proceeding.
“You're talking about folks who are often overstimulated by their surroundings and asking them to attend to conversations both in front of them and on the screen," Robert Young, a public defender in Florida’s Tenth Judicial Circuit who represented the opponents at the Supreme Court, told the Review.
While the fate of video conferencing hangs in the balance for Florida, it’s clearly evident that it helps cash-strapped states cut court costs.
"Right now, we're doing so much with so little, and as we all know very well, the Legislature is being pretty stingy with us," Colbath, the Florida judge, told the Review. "And if I had a couple of extra magistrates, I wouldn't have had to explore this.”