San Antonio Municipal Court Manager Jason Tabor spearheaded an effort to use videoconferencing to support remote court hearings. 

Jan 25 2019
Digital Workspace

State and Local Court Systems Adopt Videoconferencing to Save Time and Money

With testimony via telepresence, judges hear cases faster and defendants see less jail time.

In the 2,000 or so years since the satirist Lucian chided the wheels of justice for turning so slowly, judicial systems have struggled to accelerate. While jurists view “slow but sure” as a hallmark of good judicial oversight, the pace of court processes frustrates employees and outside parties alike. In the modern day, driving large judicial institutions forward requires informed technology investments and lean processes.

But many proceedings require face-to-face interaction, typically involving multiple parties, resulting in delays in scheduling and processing. In recent years, IP videoconferencing programs have gained traction within state and local court systems. With immersive videoconferencing technology in courtrooms and IP video endpoints, participants in the legal process — from interpreters to witnesses — can join a hearing’s virtual mix without disrupting proceedings. Not only can such systems save money, but they also reduce risk: A full docket of jailed defendants can enter pleas via videoconference instead of being transported to a courtroom, for example.

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San Antonio Invests in Connected Court Infrastructure 

The San Antonio Municipal Court, the court of record for the city of San Antonio, Texas, became a virtual pioneer when it launched an ambitious videoconferencing effort in 2008. The objective? “Instant justice,” says presiding Judge John Bull, who, along with court manager Jason Tabor, spearheaded the effort to use videoconferencing to support remote court hearings. The goal was to offer offenders a convenient alternative to waiting in a crowded downtown courtroom to plead guilty in person.

“In the private sector, IT revolves around return on investment,” says Tabor, who oversees court technology as well as the videoconferencing program. “In government services, though, it’s about return on value. So, our focus isn’t on the rate of return on our technology investments but on providing value to our citizens.”

Before starting the video effort, the city standardized on Cisco technology to gain the benefit of its integrated systems and to eliminate the cost of supporting a multivendor hodgepodge. As part of the IT management team, Tabor helped upgrade the city’s network, replacing most of the infrastructure with Cisco components. The court also converted its telecom system to Voice over IP, which it integrated with the video infrastructure.

With these upgrades, Tabor created a flexible videoconferencing network that accommodates any IP video endpoint. “We ensured the court’s video units could connect with any IP-enabled system through our city network infrastructure,” Tabor says. “To connect an IP video unit to the network, all you need is a standard network jack. Just plug in, and you’re live.”

jason Tabor, San Antonio Municipal Court Manager
We ensured the court’s video units could connect with any IP-enabled system through our city network infrastructure.”

jason Tabor San Antonio Municipal Court Manager

Today, the court takes advantage of several video endpoints. These include Cisco telepresence screens in courtrooms, desktop units on the bench and in the clerk’s office, video phones, telecommuter laptops and video kiosks installed in local grocery stores. Tabor is now enhancing these kiosks, integrating live chat, text messaging and collaborative tools.

While the court doesn’t plan to use videoconferencing for trials, it’s tailor-made for plea entries and fine assessments. It also meets the round-the-clock needs of telecommuting judges assigned to adjudicate the cases of defendants held in the county magistrate’s center.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out how states have benefited from remote video testimony in courts via videoconferencing tech.

Oregon Upgrades Courtroom Telepresence Gear 

As the telecommunication group lead for the Oregon Judicial Department, Brian Canfield has dealt with videoconference issues caused by underperforming networks. Frustrated, he switched to a new network service provider, which honored his group’s quality of service contract. “We’re now able to deliver a high-quality videoconference experience, with none of the pixelating we previously saw,” Canfield says.

Canfield’s small team centrally manages the network and video infrastructure for 36 county courthouses and 42 annexes across 27 judicial districts. While handling this function, the team managed to complete a sweeping videoconferencing rollout, part of the OJD’s technology modernization plan. Ninety-five percent of Oregon’s circuit courts supported video connectivity by 2007, but they had a mishmash of video tools restricted to point-to-point connections. 

Canfield’s team upgraded each courthouse to common standards. The upside: They came away with a template for courtroom audiovisual installations that will speed deployments going forward.

“With a staff of five, we equipped all those courtrooms,” Canfield says. Among other technologies, they installed Polycom telepresence systems, RealPresence servers, smaller videoconferencing units and additional cameras to shoot from several angles. They also switched out existing audio equipment for high-end systems, so courtroom digital recording software can accurately capture audio and video for the official case record.

“The acoustics in large, open courtrooms make audio capture challenging,” Canfield says. Jail acoustics add another level of difficulty. For arraignments, jails use mobile Polycom videoconferencing units that can roll into designated rooms or in front of cells. “When audio recordings return from a jail, they have to be tuned to remove the echo,” Canfield says.

Occasionally, the team configures video units for unique circumstances, such as Oregon’s Post-Conviction Relief Program, which lets prisoners file petitions to contest sentences. Working from OJD’s central offices, retired judges conduct PCRP hearings via a video system that links them to the hearing.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Learn how telepresence technology helps keep courtrooms and the people in them connected.

Maricopa County Cuts Pre-Trial Jail Time and Costs 

Before the 2016 launch of the Video Appearance Center in Maricopa County, Ariz., videoconferencing wasn’t a cornerstone technology for the county’s Justice Courts. The county had a video system for general use that it made available to its Justice Courts on a limited basis upon special request.

Meanwhile, a growing case backlog meant defendants jailed for failing to pay fines or appear on misdemeanor charges waited an average of 6.9 days before they were arraigned. 

Court officials realized they could leverage videoconferencing to reduce jail time and accomplish other objectives. Court technologists gathered requirements and selected hardware and video software. 

The Video Appearance Center delivered immediately. The technology allowed all Justice Courts to see defendants five days a week, with impressive results. Before the center came online, deputies transported inmates scheduled for hearings to one of 26 Justice Courts across Maricopa County. Now, they transport defendants from the jail through a tunnel connected to the Video Appearance Center, a basement-level courtroom in the Superior Court’s East Court Building.


The percentage of defendants detained by another jurisdiction testifying in New York City courtrooms via videoconference

Source: New York City Bar, “Technology in the Courts: Perspectives From the New York City Judiciary,” June 7, 2016

For videoconferencing and case processing, the Video Appearance Center is equipped with Polycom telepresence systems, webcams, scanners and fax machines. Inmates sit at one of the dedicated monitors to talk with the judges conducting their hearings.

For Justice Courts, judges use Windows 7 computers along with webcams to communicate with defendants. “Because Justice Courts use the county network, judges need only to dial a phone number, which is translated to an IP address, to connect immediately to the center,” says Manny Chavez, a technician for Maricopa County Court Technology Services.

Two years after its debut, the Video Appearance Center continues to improve results. The average jail stay has dropped to 3.7 days before arraignment, and officials estimate that they’ve saved close to half a million dollars in travel expenses alone.

Photography by Josh Huskin

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