In a matter of a few minutes, court is in session at the Jackson County Jail in Brownstown.
Instead of being shackled and transported to the nearby courthouse, annex or Superior Court I in Seymour, some inmates are now making their initial court appearances via live video conferencing.
The new technology has the potential to save the county money, make the local judicial system more efficient in moving cases along and provide better safety and security to the public, jail and court staff.
Jail Commander Charlie Murphy said the system is a lot like Skype, an Internet video chat program, but more secure.
Inmates and their attorneys can be seen and heard from the jail by the judge and prosecuting attorney and vice versa through video cameras, microphones and monitors.
“We put them in a room, dial up which court it is using a remote, they receive the feed and we’re on,” Murphy said. “It’s that easy.”
Occasionally, there have been some technical difficulties with sound quality, but nothing that hasn’t been easy to overcome with a few adjustments, Murphy said.
Although the audio/visual equipment arrived back in November, there has been a delay in getting all of the components installed and working together properly.
Superior Court I is still trying to get the video conferencing system up and running, and it’s not yet operational at the juvenile detention center, either, Murphy said.
Jackson Superior Court I Judge Bruce Markel III, who has championed the system, said he has been frustrated by the length of time it has taken to get everything in place. He hopes to have his courtroom using the system in the next couple of weeks.
He said he has known about the video conferencing technology for some time but until recent years didn’t have much support for it from the county or the sheriff’s department.
But the sheriff’s department will benefit the most from the new system, Markel said.
“It’s for their benefit more than anything,” he said. “It won’t change when we do initial hearings. They will still happen the day after a person is arrested. It will help make the sheriff’s department and jail more efficient and safer in the work they do.”
The system is costing the county more than $40,000 and is being paid for through bond money from the courts and commissary funds from the jail.
But Markel said the savings alone from the cost of transporting inmates from Brownstown to his courtroom every day will be worth it, along with preventing wear and tear on police transport vehicles.
In 2013, the sheriff’s department traveled nearly 4,000 miles, taking prisoners back and forth from Superior Court I and the jail, Markel said.
Often, two officers were assigned transport duty on those trips, which could last two or three hours each day.
“That’s all eliminated now,” Markel said.
With about 190 inmates in the jail, Murphy said there is always someone that has to go to the hospital or to see the doctor.
Having the video conferencing system in place frees up transport officers for those duties and keeps the county from having to pay overtime, Murphy said.
Murphy said it also helps when they have to go elsewhere to pick up inmates. In the past, jailers have been used to help transport inmates when the other officers are busy.
“That leaves me shorthanded in the jail,” Murphy said.
With the video conferencing capabilities available in some other counties, too, local officers may not have to spend so much time and money transporting out of county, either.
In some cases, officers have had to drive to Indianapolis or Plainfield to pick up inmates and bring them back to Jackson County for a hearing that lasts 15 minutes, Murphy said.
“There are so many savings that we are going to realize that we don’t even know what they are,” said Murphy, who also serves on the Jackson County Council.
Markel said he sees no drawbacks to using the system for initial hearings and possibly other situations. It won’t, however, be used in all court cases.
“We’re trying to do all initial hearings this way, but there will be some cases that it won’t work,” he said.
The technology is being used and praised by Judge Rick Poynter in Jackson Circuit Court and Judge Bruce MacTavish for juvenile cases in Superior Court II, both in Brownstown.
In the past couple of weeks, more than a dozen initial hearings for circuit court and six or seven in Superior Court II have taken place without the defendants ever leaving the jail.
Poynter said the video system works fine and is just another step in bringing the judicial system into the 21st century when it comes to available technology.
The only glitch has been with a microphone and has required the prosecutor to use the microphone at his bench. He also said because the inmates are taken into a room at the jail with concrete block walls for the hearings, there is an echo effect.
Those are small issues that will be worked out, he added.
“I think we used it three days last week,” he said. “Obviously, it’s more convenient, and it improves security because the less you take an inmate outside the jail, the safer everyone is.”
That’s especially true for his courtroom, he said, since it handles serious criminal cases, sometimes with violent offenders.
He said he expects the system to be utilized the most by Markel in Superior Court I, where they will be able to conduct change-of-plea hearings in misdemeanor cases, too.
Murphy said he doesn’t know how much money the new system will save the county, but from his standpoint, it’s all about improving security and safety.
“We had five initial hearings at the same time, and we didn’t have to take them out in the weather, and they aren’t coming into contact with other people,” he said.
At Superior Court II at the courthouse annex, Murphy said inmates wait outside the courtroom for their hearings, sitting in the hallways in chairs among the public.
“It’s not a good situation,” he said. “The public will benefit because they will no longer have to be among the inmates.”
It also helps prevent trafficking of drugs and other contraband, which is often obtained from family or friends when prisoners leave the jail for their hearings, Murphy said.
Brett Hays, a defense attorney in Seymour, said he has not had any clients utilize the system for hearings yet but said it can be a good way to save time and money.
“Typically, at initial hearings, the defendant has not hired an attorney or had one appointed yet,” Hays said. “I believe it is a good system and saves a lot of resources at that stage in the process where the party is not represented yet.”
But once legal representation is in place, Hays said it’s important for everyone to be in the same room.
“I feel strongly that the client and I have to be in the same location and able to converse privately as needed throughout the process, so I don’t believe it would be a good system once the attorney is involved,” he said.
Murphy said he doesn’t know how much the system will benefit attorneys, but he would like to see it used to provide inmates with better access to their lawyers.
“I hear from the inmates a lot that they haven’t heard from their lawyer in two weeks,” Murphy said. “It would help speed up their case if we could arrange for them to meet through this system.”