The Elkhart County courthouse in Goshen, Ind., has been using new solutions from Cisco to conduct virtual hearings. 

Nov 18 2020
Digital Workspace

Connected Court System Tools Enhance Safety for Counties

A new solution from Cisco promises to streamline courtroom proceedings and aid public health efforts amid the pandemic.

Courtrooms across the country have embraced videoconferencing solutions for hearings and even trials out of necessity to comply with social distancing guidelines and help stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

As the largest-yet wave of the virus washes over the U.S., such solutions will become even more necessary. In late October, Cisco Systems unveiled a new offering to aid not just courtrooms but correctional facilities and parole offices. The solution, called Connected Justice, is being billed as “the first standards-based video solution to deliver comprehensive, connected professional services to courts, correctional facilities and community corrections,” according to a press release.

According to The New York Times, in American jails and prisons, more than 252,000 people have been infected with COVID-19 and at least 1,450 inmates and correctional officers have died.

As courtrooms shut down this past spring, it was clear that courts would need to continue operating, lawyers would need to still see their clients and organizations working with inmates about to be released would still need to interact with those inmates on re-entry programs.

Daniel Stewart, senior justice advisor at Cisco, said he told the teams working on the project internally, “‘The work you are doing is not just to build a solution. It will potentially save lives.’ That’s when their ears perked up.”

Connecting All Participants in the Justice System

The Connected Justice solution has three main components. One is for courtroom proceedings themselves. Thousands of courtrooms throughout the U.S. are already using Cisco Webex, and the solution leverages Webex for real-time videoconferencing.

Cisco says the solution offers “courts the ability to hold virtual hearings with an integrated docket dashboard that identifies a virtual lobby and side rooms,” which are enabled via Cisco’s partner Cloverhound. Stewart says the solution allows lawyers to maintain attorney-client privilege and supports recording and translation services.

The solution also allows courts to integrate other solutions, such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, through Webex, according to Stewart.

“We have been virtualizing courts for years,” Stewart says. “We’ve put it on steroids now.” Cisco wants to make the solution replicable not just for a once-in-a-century pandemic but in case of tornadoes, blizzards and other disasters.

Daniel Stewart, Senior Justice Advisor, Cisco
We have been virtualizing courts for years. We’ve put it on steroids now.”

Daniel Stewart Senior Justice Advisor, Cisco

“Courts are making decisions today on tech purchases that will dictate how they respond to any disaster recovery situation,” Stewart adds.

A second application is for correctional facilities, and Cisco says that the offering “provides seamless virtual visitation services via simplified workflow and user experience.” The goal is to enable inmates to get easy virtual access to critical services such as court appearances, telehealth services and distance learning.

Stewart notes that if an inmate tested positive for the coronavirus before being transported from a jail to a courtroom, the inmate would then need to quarantine for 14 days, as would any guards or other personnel who came into contact with the inmate. That then could leave correctional facilities short-staffed and force them to change inmate housing arrangements.

Virtual hearings cut down on the likelihood of that occurring, Stewart says. Virtual services also allow correctional facility staff to spend time on tasks other than transporting inmates.

The third use case is for community corrections, and Cisco argues virtual tools can help state and local government agencies better reduce recidivism rates by delivering rehabilitative support and supervision services via a new mobile advanced supervision and integrated case management solution from Cisco partner TRACKtech.

The solution notifies parole officers and other staff members of noncompliance, “allowing them to spend their time where it is needed most,” according to Cisco. It also “simplifies delivery of essential support services such as remote check-ins, teletherapy recovery and behavioral health counseling and homeless services.”

LEARN MORE: Find out how videoconferencing helps judges hear cases faster and defendants see less jail time.

How Elkhart County, Ind., Is Connecting Its Court System

One of the locales using the new Cisco solution is Elkhart County, Ind. Matthew Dietz, director of IT for Elkhart County, says that the county has deployed a Webex Room Kit setup in its courtrooms and jury rooms, as well as in a juvenile detention center. However, the county has focused mainly on supporting court hearings.

“We needed to get back up and running and we needed to process cases,” Dietz says. “We needed to get back to normal, not just for our sake but for our citizens’ sake.”

All of the court scheduling and hearings are done via the platform, which has also enabled free visitation at the juvenile detention center. The system has also increased efficiency in the county’s courts, according to Dietz.

Citizens no longer have to plan entire days around a 15-minute court appearance, and the docket is moving much more smoothly. The county’s traffic court can now process 80 cases per day. Prior to using a virtual solution, the maximum number that could be processed in a day was 35, Dietz says.

Through July, the county had 2,000 virtual meetings in its courthouses using the platform, 90 percent of which were court hearings, according to Dietz.

“It has become a platform that has evolved into something that is not only benefiting the county in terms of function, but also how we serve our citizens in our county in a way we never thought we could,” he says. “Now, we are finding, this is how we always want to serve our county.”

The solution obviates the need to transport inmates from jails to courthouses, reducing the need and cost of security, Dietz says. The solution also affords inmates more dignity. Instead of having them sit in a hallway to wait their turn with a judge while wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, inmates can have private hearings with a judge via video. Because the lag time is milliseconds, it makes inmates feel like they are in the room with a judge, Dietz says. “The personal approach isn’t lost,” he adds.

“In discussing things with an attorney or judge, usually in virtualized solution you lose personalization,” Dietz says. “But with Webex, we’re not losing that, and inmates can have candid conversations with their attorneys.”

Elkhart County is looking to deploy the TRACKtech solution for probation services. “The jail in Elkhart County takes the approach that people in jail are human,” Dietz says. “If they have the right tools when they go out, maybe we don’t have to see them again.”

The solution offers easier access to educational, visitation and cognitive therapy programming, Dietz notes, via a one-touch smartphone application.

“We want to be the catalyst that ignites the change in how we conduct hearings in our entire court process as well as the judicial process,” Dietz says.

Derek Jensen/Wikimedia Commons

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