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'Virtual Hearings' Via Webcam Save Courts Money

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NEW YORK -- George Villanueva, charged with first-degree murder in the death of a police officer, will not leave jail for months of pretrial hearings.

Instead, he'll be beamed into the courtroom via video as lawyers discuss his case in front of the judge.

Villanueva's case is part of a surge in court appearances done by video in New York and around the country, as cash-strapped communities look for ways to boost efficiency and cut costs. The tools are used in courts large and small, and the savings for some are staggering: $30 million in Pennsylvania so far, $600,000 in Georgia, and $50,000 per year in transportation costs in Ohio.

"We've had to trim our spending wherever we can and still provide what we think is effective constitutional justice, and we're doing that with the help of modern technology," said Pennsylvania State Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille.

Advocates say the virtual hearing is easier on defendants, who don't have to get up at 4 a.m. to be shuttled with other criminal suspects to court, only to wait hours standing and handcuffed for an appearance. Judges say their cases are moving faster. And civil liberties groups say the practice raises no red flags.

"The technology is really exploding. It's gotten much cheaper and easier to run, and states are reporting a huge range of savings," said Jim McMillan of the National Center for State Courts, which studied the use of video in courts in the U.S.

About 166 court systems – or more than half the country's – responded to the group's survey six months ago. The survey found that video use has vastly increased in the past five years. Initial appearances, mental health hearings and status conferences are among the most frequently conducted via video, according to the survey.

The video systems vary in cost but are all built on the same principles: A webcam or video camera is used in the courtroom, and a station is set up at the jail or detention center where suspects are held. Defendants go to a secure room and appear via a secure Internet connection.

The juvenile court in the eastern Ohio Appalachian county of Belmont, for example, links the court, jail and its juvenile detention center. Juvenile Court Judge Mark Costine, who started the project, handles detention hearings and other matters with the parents in court with him and their child sitting in a special room at the detention center.

By transporting fewer prisoners, the sheriff's office there is saving $50,000 a year. And it only cost about $7,000 to install the video setup, the judge said.

The four-year project has been so successful that local government bought the equipment for other county courts to use.

"All the courts have these issues of transportation of prisoners," the judge said. "We found a way to make the hearings go faster and also save money.

"It's swifter justice."

Georgia's Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, reported a savings of $600,000 in the past five years. Courts in New Jersey and Florida also use video and have reported savings.

In New York, usage has more than quadrupled in the past two years, with Brooklyn leading the city, but only about 1,500 appearances were made via video in 2010 citywide among tens of thousands of cases. That small percentage has failed to produce major savings.

"In order for us to save on transportation, we'd have to have significant reductions to eliminate a whole bus trip," said Stephen Morello, corrections spokesman.

Court officials here would like to see more judges take advantage of the system, though not all courtrooms are equipped with the technology.

In 2008, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts began a three-year initiative to provide video conferencing equipment, and more than 400 courts have it. Court officials estimate that it will save about $20 million annually statewide on security and transportation costs. Philadelphia alone has reported a savings of more than $30 million over five years.

It's not just about the savings. In Oregon's Multnomah County, which includes Portland, court officials have set up a closed-link system at a domestic violence shelter where women can apply for a protective order from their abusers without having to risk leaving the safe house. Utah uses the video to deliver classroom training for clerk staff and to hold meetings, saving some employees five-hour drives.

At least 750 statutes govern the practice. In some places, like New York, the defendant must consent to holding hearings this way. Others don't require consent but need a judge's ruling.

No criminal justice officials say the physical presence of a defendant will be replaced during a trial, and the use of the technology during trials for witnesses makes some lawyers on both sides squeamish.

"When I'm cross-examining somebody, I want them to feel my presence," said attorney Kleon Andreadis, who is representing Villanueva in his murder case in Brooklyn.

Andreadis says he doesn't have a problem with his clients beaming in for minor hearings that are often postponed or rescheduled.

"If you're a defendant, you're hustled out pretty early. You have to be logged in downstairs in the bowels of the courthouse somewhere and wait until you're brought up, and that can take hours."

Villanueva is accused of shoving New York Police Department officer Alain Schaberger off a small stoop in March during a struggle as he was being arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. The officer fell 9 feet to his death. Villanueva's lawyer says Schaberger was knocked off by another officer.

During Villanueva's recent arraignment in state Supreme Court in Brooklyn, the courtroom was packed with officers from Schaberger's precinct and top union brass, a show of force common when someone is on trial in the death or assault of an officer.

Judge Neil Firetog asked if there were any objections to holding hearings via video, and there were none from Villanueva, his attorney or prosecutor Mark Hale.

But the idea angered the head of the Patrolman's Benevolent Association head, Patrick Lynch.

"We will be here for it all," Lynch said. "I think he should be here."

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Courts nationwide hold hearings with video

Courts nationwide hold hearings with video

Courts nationwide hold hearings with video

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