Jail video funds likely

Cameras would link detention center, nearby courthouses

Grant approval expected

Remote bail reviews would save money, reduce risk of escape

January 28, 2002|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Prisoners in Carroll County could soon be appearing on camera to have their bail reviewed by a judge, rather than being searched and shackled, then driven the one block from the jail to the courthouse.

Sheriff's Department officials expect approval within a few weeks of a state grant for a videoconferencing system. The county commissioners agreed last week to provide the county's share, $6,096.

The county will save that amount within two months, predicted Maj. John W. Stultz, who heads court security for the Sheriff's Department and helped write the proposal to the state for the $52,413 project.

"We're looking at cutting staff time in half," he said, eliminating the procedure in which prisoners are handcuffed, placed in leg irons and searched before being placed in a van to be driven to court from the Carroll County Detention Center. Two deputies must be present, and at least one must be armed.

"Even if you take the whole $52,413, we're hoping to realize that [savings] in 1 1/2 years, just in staff time to transport the prisoners," Stultz said.

Last year, 1,130 prisoners were taken for bail-review hearings, 364 to Circuit Court and the rest to District Court, he said. In addition to being time-consuming, transporting prisoners also poses a risk of escape and of interference by victims or relatives.

Equipment will be installed in two circuit courtrooms, one each in the historic courthouse and in the courthouse annex. A videoconferencing system will be placed in both courtrooms of the District Court building, which is expected to open this summer, and plans call for two monitors, one for the judge and a second for attorneys and spectators.

The mechanics are being decided, Stultz said, but the prisoner would stand before a camera at the jail rather than in the courtroom, and would be able to see and communicate with the judge and attorneys.

District Court commissioners, who are not judges, will continue to see accused people first in their office, and it is they who initially set bail.

Bail usually is reviewed the next day by a District Court or Circuit Court judge - at this point, the accused would be transmitted rather than transported.

Warden George R. Hardinger said his problem with the planned video system has been choosing a quiet location at the jail for the camera and monitor.

"One thing that seems to be important is background noise," he said, based on others' experience, because the videoconferencing system amplifies the sounds of intercoms and people moving.

Camera use common

About half of the state's jurisdictions use videoconferencing for bail reviews, said Martha F. Rasin, who for five years, until September, was chief judge of the state's District Court system.

"The only problem that I'm aware of that occurred with using that technology was in Baltimore City, where the technology was inadequate," she said, noting that the city's system has been upgraded and "vastly improved."

"When you turn on that sort of a system, it's not automatic that it's going to be television-quality," said Rasin, now an Anne Arundel County District Court judge. "We've sort of learned the hard way that it's important to set standards."

Support from judges

Carroll Circuit Administrative Judge Raymond E. Beck said he was consulted and supports the county's plan.

"It can be used for other things [such as] jury orientation," he said. "So I think it will have some added benefits for the Circuit Court. But the main purpose is to avoid tying up sheriff's deputies' time to shuffle back and forth."

A videoconferencing system has been considered before but wasn't a priority because the distance between the county detention center and the courthouse isn't as far as in some counties.

Advice from Howard

One of those is Howard County, which has had a videoconferencing system for several years, said Carol A. Hanson, the district public defender for Howard and Carroll counties, who met with and made suggestions to Carroll officials about setting up such a system.

"Our detention center is 11 miles away from the courthouse," she said. "Videoconferencing does save enormous amounts of time and money, and [reduces] security risks.

"There are some slight problems, but nothing that we can't work with," Hanson said.

Lawyers in Howard must walk to the judge's bench to be visible to the prisoner, she said. Because the accused usually hasn't met with a lawyer, one might blurt out something confidential.

Carroll would have a private telephone for defendants to use to speak to their defense attorney during the hearing, Stultz said. The attorney may choose to be in the courtroom or at the jail with the client during the bail review.

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