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The Buzz: Installation Spotlight: Limestone County courthouse, Alabama

Video Court Hearings

The Buzz: Installation Spotlight: Limestone County courthouse, Alabama

Aug 4, 2009 12:00 PM,
By Jessaca Gutierrez

Video Court Hearings

In Limestone County, Ala., initial appearance hearings for those having been arrested were draining the time and resources of the judicial system. After some investigating, Director of IT David Freeman determined Cisco Unified IP Phone 7985G videophones would provide an efficient alternative to transporting the defendants to the courthouse for these hearings and for other projects in the future.

At Limestone County courthouse in Alabama, time is a valuable commodity. Located in the northernmost part of the state, the county only has a population of about 78,000. That number hasn’t stopped it from becoming one of the most advanced counties in the state where technology is concerned, and that’s due in large part to a recent installation that combines a paperless document-management system with videophones.

In September 2008, the courthouse took a closer look at the workflow surrounding its initial appearance hearings for those arrested for criminal disturbances—including DUIs, domestic violence, and theft—to hear charges laid against them, the conditions of their release, and any restraints. By law, these hearings must take place within 12 hours following arrest. This can require judges who are on call to come in during the weekend or in the evenings. If the hearing is done during the week, the sheriff’s department must transport the defendant to the courthouse located roughly 2 miles away.

On average, the judges were conducting 25 to 30 initial appearance hearings a week, each lasting 10 minutes to 15 minutes per defendant. Factor in that it was taking 3 hours per inmate to conduct these hearings—including the time it took to get the defendant out of his or her jail cell, prepped to go, and transported, then have the hearing, and then bring back the defendant—along with needing two jailers and a deputy, and it’s clear that too much time and resources were being spent on a fairly simple task. The judges in the county thought technology could make the process more efficient. They put together a wish list that they then passed to David Freeman, director of IT for Limestone County.

“I got to looking and investigating into what some of the other city/county municipalities used for video hearings,” Freeman says. “A lot of them used closed-circuit television systems. For us, that really wasn’t feasible due to the distance between our jail facility and our courthouse. There’s about a 2-mile distance between them.”

Freeman met with the county’s Cisco sales rep to discuss what other options might be available using Cisco products. At that time, Cisco was just coming out with its latest videophone model, the Unified IP Phone 7985G with a 4”x5” LCD screen, which seemed like a good alternative for conducting these hearings remotely. Freeman initially looked at Cisco’s telepresence system, but he says it was too cost-prohibitive. Freeman also enlisted the help of Cabinet NG, a paperless document-management company, so that as the county was implementing a video system, it could go paperless by converting all its forms to a digital format that could be stored within the Cabinet NG system.

Limestone purchased six 7985G videophones—one for each judge, one for the jail, and one for an on-call Dell E6500 laptop system. Freeman estimates that the wiring in the courthouse was probably close to 100 years old, which would require rewiring. Although the courthouse is currently undergoing renovations, the particular floor that houses the judges’ offices wasn’t scheduled to be upgraded for another two years at the time. As a workaround, Freeman and his team came in and pulled Cat-5e and Cat-6 wiring on that floor and installed a Cisco switch. Freeman says the installation, which was complete in February 2009, was pretty seamless. The only bump came when they discovered they wouldn’t be able to run the Cisco videophone that was part of the on-call laptop kit because the judges’ home Internet connections weren’t fast enough to meet the phone’s requirements. They’re now using the laptop’s onboard webcam.

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The Buzz: Installation Spotlight: Limestone County courthouse, Alabama

Aug 4, 2009 12:00 PM,
By Jessaca Gutierrez

Video Court Hearings

At the same time the courthouse was implementing a remote video system for its initial appearance hearings, it upgraded its Cabinet NG software to the latest version of CNG-SAFE with a web-based server. This program allowed the courthouse to expand its paperless documentation project.

The other part of making this workflow more efficient was purchasing a new server for the new Cabinet NG CNG-SAFE software. Limestone County was already using an older version of Cabinet NG’s document-management software, but it upgraded when the company introduced the latest version with web-based capabilities. It also purchased Topaz Systems signature pads to digitally collect the defendant’s signature at the close of the hearing as proof of the defendant’s understanding of his or her arrest conditions. The judges sign off on the forms digitally using a PIN that they enter into the system. All this information is housed within the CNG-SAFE system, which tracks and stores information for all the county’s case files.

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Within six months of using the new system, judges are able to conduct 10 initial appearance hearings in 25 minutes to 30 minutes, with an average of 45 hearings per a week. Freeman predicts that number will get even better with time and experience. The system has not only freed up the judges’ time so that they can focus on other cases, but it has also relieved the jail staff of the burden of transporting the inmates for these hearings. The county plans to conduct an in-depth ROI assessment after a year to determine possibly expanding the system.

“When you’re government, it’s really kind of different than business. You don’t see ROI the same,” Freeman says. “We’re not necessarily looking for profit, but I always say, ‘We’re saving money so we can reallocate it for another service,’ and in this case, it’s to be able to use that money to expand this project into other aspects.”

Expansion would include using the system for the county’s juvenile hearings, which would provide a significant time, energy, and cost savings because the juvenile housing facility is 55 miles away. In phase two of the project, the county plans to add more videophones—and upgrade to a telepresence-based system if the county can afford it—to provide a public and private viewing area that would allow other people such as attorneys to be part of the hearings. Freeman is also working with the Alabama Supreme Court to set statutes and regulations that would allow the hearing proceedings to be recorded and stored with the Cabinet NG system.

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