New Twist On Court TV

Worcester Telegram & Gazette
By Gary V. Murray

WORCESTER — If all goes according to plan, pretrial detainees looking to have their bail reduced by a judge will soon be able to have their day in court without ever leaving the confines of the county jail.

By mid-June, a state-of-the-art video link from the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction in West Boylston to Worcester Superior Court in Worcester is expected to allow judges to conduct video-conference bail reviews for inmates — without the necessity of transporting them to court and back.
“I firmly believe this will improve public safety, increase efficiency and save the taxpayers money all at the same time,” said Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis, who will purchase the monitors and other equipment needed at a cost of about $50,000.

Reducing the number of inmates who have to be brought to court each day will save money on gasoline, repairs resulting from wear and tear on vehicles and, in many cases, overtime costs, according to the sheriff. It will also reduce the risk of escape, violence and injury associated with the transportation of prisoners in custody to the courthouse, he said.

A correction officer directs a prisoner out of a transport van at the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction in West Boylston. Several prisoners had been taken to Worcester Superior Court for hearings. (T&G Staff/RICK CINCLAIR)

From the perspective of Regional Administrative Judge Peter W. Agnes Jr., the plan will provide some measure of relief for a judicial system that has been struggling to deal with budget cuts and a three-year hiring freeze.

“The more people we have in custody in the courthouse, the more court officers we have to assign to watch them,” he said.

According to statistics provided by Clerk of Courts Dennis P. McManus, there were 765 bail reviews conducted in Worcester Superior Court last year, with monthly totals ranging from a high of 81 in November, to a low of 46 in February. As of Friday, 166 bail reviews had been conducted so far this year.

While phase one of what has been dubbed the “Worcester Court Videoconferencing Project” calls for video-conference bail reviews, phase two will take a look at the possible use of the technology for other criminal and civil proceedings, according to Sheriff Evangelidis and Judge Agnes.

“There is no question that the investment, which we expect will be about $50,000, will, in the short term, pay for itself, and in the long run, will pay for itself several times over,” the sheriff said.

The video-conferencing project is a joint undertaking of the sheriff’s department and the Massachusetts Trial Court in cooperation with the office of District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., the state Committee for Public Counsel Services and the Worcester County Bar Association.

Judge Agnes said video-conferencing has been in widespread use in courts throughout the country, as well as in state courts in Suffolk and Norfolk counties, where the technology is employed for bail reviews.

Video-conference bail hearings were conducted on an experimental basis in Worcester Superior Court before it moved to the new Worcester Trial Court building at 225 Main St. in 2007. An apparent lack of commitment, however, put an end to the practice, according to the sheriff.

One of the current Worcester project’s goals, Judge Agnes said, is to make the “remote” participant’s video appearance in court as similar to an in-person courtroom experience as possible.

Each bail petitioner will have an opportunity for a private conversation with his or her lawyer before the hearing and the hearing will be temporarily suspended if such a communication is requested during the proceeding, according to the judge.

Michael S. Hussey, attorney-in-charge of the Committee for Public Counsel Services’ Worcester office, is not opposed to the use of video-conferencing for bail hearings, but has reservations about the expanded use of the technology in court.

“While it would be preferable for every defendant to have his day in court, and literally in the courtroom, budgeting realities make this a necessary, acceptable alternative.

“I remain skeptical as to the appropriateness of video-conferencing for other, more meaningful court proceedings,” Mr. Hussey said.

He said he would be opposed, for example, to arraigning a suspect in a criminal case by way of video-conferencing.

“I think the defendant has a right to be present in a courtroom when he is formally charged, whether that be in a district court or superior court courtroom. It brings home to the defendant the public nature of the proceedings,” he said.

4/27/2011 WORCESTER TELEGRAM AND GAZETTE STORY