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Criminal Courts Criticized For Using Video Proceedings To Save Time, Money


Across the United States, more criminal courts are turning to video proceedings. This is in an effort to save time and money. As that happens, some public defenders and others in the criminal justice system are questioning whether the rights of those accused are being affected by this technology. From Illinois Newsroom in Urbana, Lee Gaines reports.

LEE GAINES, BYLINE: Today, like most days, thousands of defendants will show up in criminal court for their first appearance in front of a judge. It's likely that more than half of those appearances will not be in a courtroom in person. The defendant will instead face a video camera from inside a jail. Sheriff Jeff Standard likes that system. He's in Lewistown in rural west central Illinois. He demonstrates what his deputies used to have to do.

JEFF STANDARD: They would have shackles on, so their steps are going to be half of what we're taking. And their belts are going to be chained together, so you're walking in a line. It's kind of like a three-legged race.

GAINES: Standard says the video system they now use frees up more of his officers for patrol. And he argues that the convenience of the system is better for everyone.

STANDARD: Now we can take them right in the back, put them in front of a video camera. The judge has access to their video camera. And they're having a conversation just like we are now, but it's just over a video screen.

GAINES: But Charles Davidson says it's just not the same. Davidson is 68 years old and a recovering heroin user who was in and out of jails and prisons in Illinois for over two decades. He finds the video process both off-putting and demeaning.

CHARLES DAVIDSON: When I first went to the video court, it just blew my mind because I'm watching everybody get up and go in front of the screen. And it's either yes sir or no sir. You know, you couldn't say anything.

GAINES: Davidson says, when you're in the same room as the judge, it's easier to have a conversation with them. And he's noticed there's a greater chance they'll listen to what you have to say. He says the first time he appeared in video court, he didn't think he got a fair shake.

DAVIDSON: I was trying to explain to the judge what happened, and they told me to be quiet.

GAINES: Soon after, Davidson was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Lawyer Rosalie Joy says she hears stories like Davidson's all the time. She's with the National Legal Aid & Defender Association and says the increasing use of video court has some defense attorneys concerned that it alienates the accused from those deciding their fate.

ROSALIE JOY: Even before the proceedings begin, you already feel like you're treated as though you're guilty. You are feeling excluded from the process. You are treated as the least important part of the process because there is nothing that can replace human interaction. And as a defense attorney, I am never going to be as effective in the courtroom for my client unless my client stands shoulder-to-shoulder to me.

GAINES: While there's little research on video court, what's out there shows it may increase bail amounts and, in many cases, makes private communication between attorneys and clients more public. On the prosecution side, many defend video court for its cost savings and efficiency. While acknowledging that, some of those advocating for the accused say it's a trade-off that's unfair to defendants.

For NPR News, I'm Lee Gaines in Urbana, Ill.


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