...Whether They Like it Or Not
OURAY COUNTY – On a day when the new video arraignment system at the Ouray County Courthouse was supposed to be working, the system wasn’t working.
The large screen facing the courtroom where the defendant in Montrose County Jail should have appeared instead showed only the frustrated face of Judge David Westfall himself, as he sat at the judge’s bench 10 feet away, peered balefully into his own computer’s eyeball.
“But it does work well, most of the time,” court clerk Jane Holmes said.
The equipment has been installed for about a year now, but has been functional only since last summer, when Montrose County Jail upgraded its own video conferencing equipment to be compatible with Ouray’s new $50,000 system. When it’s working, defendants “appear” for their court date without ever leaving jail. They can see Judge Westfall, and he and the whole courtroom can see a virtual version of them.
But on this day, after fiddling with the connection for several minutes, Judge Westfall gives up, resorts to speakerphone instead to advise two prisoners in Montrose of their rights, set bail and outline the next steps for each of them as they make their way through the justice system.
The video arraignment system is generally only used for defendants who just got arrested, and haven’t posted bond yet. On this day, there’s a sex offender who failed to register upon moving to Ouray County, and someone who violated a restraining order. It can also be used for people who have a felony conviction and need to make a court appearance while they are serving time.
Colorado Supreme Court Rule 43 sets forth with specificity the types of hearings that are okay for video conferencing.
“It’s limited,” said Steve Steadman, a court security specialist with the Colorado Judicial Department. “It can’t be used for everything; we will never do a court trial or jury trial using video conferencing. Every person in our state has a guarantee to be there in person for their own trial. That’s not the purpose. But that’s not to say that a witness couldn’t appear via video conferencing.”
Even on days when the video conferencing equipment works fine, it’s not perfect, by any means. Judge Westfall prefers the old-fashioned arraignment method of having defendants show up in his courtroom in person. A lot of the nuance of human interaction is lost when you are not speaking to someone face-to-face.
But, every courtroom Westfall works in on the Western Slope, including Telluride, Montrose and Delta as well as Ouray, has shifted to the video system, so railing against it is pretty pointless.
Besides, Westfall and Holmes point out, they are not the ones who benefit from the new system. It’s about making things safer and more efficient for the Sheriff’s Department.
And when you talk to Ouray County Sheriff Junior Mattivi about how he likes the video arraignment system, he’s got plenty of good things to say.
“It’s impacted our department in a good way,” Mattivi said. “It frees up a deputy because we don’t have to send someone down to Montrose to transport prisoners to court. The deputy can be out doing more patrolling, or finishing paperwork, instead of transporting and babysitting prisoners.”
Having prisoners make court appearances via video also saves the county money, because less trips to Montrose mean less fill-ups at the gas station, and less wear and tear on the vehicles.
But most importantly, Mattivi stressed, the video arraignment system makes things safer for his deputies.
“It’s a safety issue, absolutely,” he said. “A lot of times, one deputy would have to transport three or four prisoners in one vehicle. One up front, and three in back. That makes for a big officer safety concern.”
Mattivi recounted a situation last year, where a deputy was transferring one inmate into the vehicle, and another took off and ran.
Luckily, thanks to a heads-up from the first prisoner, the deputy was able to apprehend the escapee without incident. “We got pretty lucky,” Mattivi said. “Officer safety is our biggest concern.”
Mattivi estimates the video arraignment system saves his department between eight and 12 man hours per month in time that would otherwise be spent transporting prisoners back and forth from Montrose. “I’m really pleased with it,” he said. “It’s freed us up to do what we need to be doing.”
County Commissioner Lynn Padgett, who has worked hard to draw Ouray County into the digital age, spearheaded the effort to set up video arraignments at Ouray County Court. The upgrade was paid for through a state courthouse security grant – a pot of money derived from the $5 fee for each case filed in the court system.
It’s part a pilot program headed by the Colorado Judicial Department called the video conferencing initiative, that has been going on since 2010. In all, 28 courthouses throughout Colorado got funding to purchase video conferencing equipment, representing a cross-section of the state. The ultimate goal is to tie all courthouses into a statewide video conferencing network.
“Weld, Boulder, Denver, Douglas, they are all part of the pilot program,” said Steadman, who oversees the project. But, he stressed, it’s the small rural counties that are far away from the nearest jail that get the most benefit. “What we hope to achieve for the court system is to reduce the number of prisoner transfers to only those that are necessary,” Steadman said. “We want to keep courthouses as safe as can be.”
The pilot program has just wrapped up, and Steadman is currently crunching numbers to determine the overall cost savings to participating counties. He’s hoping the numbers will be convincing enough to persuade those counties that are not yet hooked up to the statewide network to invest in their own video conferencing equipment in the near future.
“We hope to lead the way, to prove the capability and let counties make the decision to join with us,” Steadman said.
Samantha Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet @iamsamwright.