Mar 13 2018

States Seek to Close Legislative Divides Via Remote Testimony Tech

With more reliable systems at the helm, judicial videoconferencing offers the chance to close geographical gaps, protect victims and save states on transport costs.

Telework, telehealth, and now, get ready for telecourt.

Remote testimony bills are making their way through legislatures across the country and into courtrooms, usually as part of larger courtroom upgrades.

With the ability to make courtrooms safer and save taxpayer dollars on transport costs, many states have already adopted judicial videoconferencing capabilities. They've tapped providers such as Cisco Systems to offer secure telepresence technology.

New York, for instance, has been using videoconferencing technology for at least 10 years with child witnesses. The state expanded its program to family court in 2016 with a pilot that accepted petitions from advocacy groups working with domestic violence victims to hold initial ex parte hearings via videoconference.

"Victims can also make their initial appearance via Skype conference set up by the advocating agency, and are given a secure email account from which they can communicate and receive records regarding the case. These accommodations shield victims of domestic violence from the trauma of having to appear in court in the presence of their abuser," Lawrence K. Marks, chief administrative judge for the New York State Unified Court System, explained in a recent op-ed in New York Law Journal.

With the tech operational in 15 counties, New York is the first in the nation to pilot such a program on a statewide basis.

With New York on the leading edge, where do other counties and states stand? New regulations and tech advances are helping several inch closer to introducing telepresence technology in courtrooms.

Big States Close Geography Gaps with Videoconferencing

Last June, Oregon joined the small number of large states, such as Nevada and Colorado, that have approved remote video testimony in courts via videoconferencing tech. Oregon touted it as "a way to make the legislative process more accessible to Oregonians, including those from rural areas or who may face other barriers to testifying in person in the capitol," according to a press release.

While Oregonians could previously submit in-person or written testimony, the new capability can eliminate hours of travel for those in rural areas, or difficult travel for the elderly and disabled.

"This bill levels the playing field for communities that typically do not have the resources or ability to interact with the legislature and impact the process," said Rep. Knute Buehler, a chief sponsor of the resolution, in the press release. "It is important that our legislative process is equitable, transparent and accessible to everyone."

Alaska has also tapped remote testimony using Cisco technology as a way to connect the court system across the country's largest state.

Outside of the courtroom, Hawaii launched its Senate Videoconferencing Pilot Project in 2016. Heading into its third year, the pilot project allows the Senate to "explore the use of videoconference technology as a way to expand opportunities for the public to actively participate in formulating new legislation," according to the project's website. "At the same time, the Senate will benefit from additional state, county and community input and discussion."

Washington Pushes for Remote Testimony

Pilots don't always translate into successful programs, however.

Washington state recently tested out remote testimony at 15 sites throughout the state with only two instances of system failure during the 2017 session, according to a recent report. As a large state with a difficult-to-traverse geography and unpredictable weather, videoconferencing offered those in remote areas or locked down by inclement weather the chance to participate in government proceedings.

"People who were in the process of coming over to testify actually got turned around before they hit the pass by police officers because the conditions were so bad," state Sen. Sharon Brown tells StateScoop. "It takes a minimum of one day for them to drive over and back and they had to take time off work. I just felt it was really unfair just because they happen to be located in Eastern Washington."

Despite the success, the legislature has not yet passed a larger initiative for the tech.

"Government is of the people, by the people, for the people," Brown said. "And to foster that, you need to find means for people to participate."

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