Baltimore County District Judge Marshall Alexander took the bench one recent afternoon for bail reviews.
But instead of facing a line of suspects in jumpsuits handcuffed and shackled together in front of him, he looked out at two gigantic television screens and a state-of-the-art video camera.
Baltimore County has started using a video conference system to conduct bail reviews, beaming live images of suspects from the county jail into the courthouse and vice versa.
The new process has consolidated all of the county's bail hearings in a single courtroom in Towson -- instead of three courthouses -- and allows officials with pretrial services to conduct a more thorough review of an inmate's background for the judge who will decide whether to free the suspect.
"It's going really smoothly," said Sharon Tyler, a program manager at the Baltimore County Detention Center. "The process has improved greatly for us because we can give the judge a better picture of the inmate and whether they'll show up for trial."
Courts in Baltimore City and many counties across Maryland -- including Anne Arundel, Carroll, Howard and Prince George's -- have held video-conference bail reviews for years.
Baltimore City replaced its entire closed-circuit television system in 2001 after a judge ruled that the poor quality of the old system violated defendants' rights. The picture on the television monitors in court was blurry, making it difficult for judges or lawyers to see an inmate's facial expressions or gestures. And only the judge's microphone was wired to transmit sound to the jail, preventing defendants from being able to hear their lawyers argue their cases.
The system installed in the district courthouse in Towson is state-of-the-art, officials said. It became operational Nov. 28.
About 11:45 a.m. each weekday, bailiffs roll a large cart into Courtroom No. 1. It holds two 42-inch television screens back-to-back. One faces the gallery area of the courtroom, the other is visible only to the judge.
On top of that television screen sits a camera, which is pointed at the judge's bench.
One recent morning, bailiff Stephen Marcin used a large remote control to adjust the camera installed in an old classroom at the detention center about a half-mile away.
"We want just a close-up of the inmate," he said, zooming the camera in to show only a plastic gray chair in the corner of a cinder-block room painted white and blue. In the room, a television screen shows only a view of the judge, his desk and nameplate and a portion of the Maryland seals hanging on the wall behind him.
A few minutes later, Alexander took the bench and the first inmate was brought in.
The judge moved efficiently through the docket of defendants, including eight men and four women who did not waive their right to appear before a judge and who attended the court proceeding through the televised connection.
For a man from El Salvador, court officials swore in an interpreter in the courtroom. She translated the judge's remarks into Spanish for the defendant and his answers into English for the judge.
A few defendants had friends or relatives in the courtroom to speak on their behalf. They stepped beside the television screens to address the judge -- a spot from which the inmate could hear but not see them in court.
For each case, a pretrial services investigator told the judge a little about each defendant. In most cases, the investigator had interviewed the inmate and then called the person's relatives or employers to verify information about living arrangements and employment status.
One woman charged with marijuana possession who had twice failed to show up for trial was being held on $35,000 bail. She told the investigator that she was living with her mother, working at McDonald's and had missed her second trial date because she was locked up in the city.
But the woman's mother had told the investigator that she didn't know where her daughter was living and didn't know anything about a fast-food job, the pretrial services worker told the judge. In addition, the investigator said, a review of the woman's criminal record did not turn up any proof that she was incarcerated in the city on her previous trial date.
The judge did not change the woman's bail.
Tyler, the program manager at the jail, said that the county's previous system made conducting that kind of review nearly impossible for all the inmates.
Under the old system, defendants would be transported from a district court commissioner in Catonsville, Essex or Towson to a police precinct. The precinct would hold the defendants until they had a bail hearing at one of the county's three district courthouses.
But there weren't enough pretrial services investigators to get to all the precincts, Tyler said, so some defendants had bail hearings with only a more cursory criminal background check. Now, all defendants are brought to the jail and are interviewed by pretrial service investigators, who then make calls to check out that information. All bail hearings are now held at the jail through the televised system.
"This is much better for us because we are able to interview 90 percent or more of the inmates," she said. "It also allows the police to get back out into the community instead of being jailers."