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Take Pleas by Way of Television, Judge Asks

Times Staff Writer

If Judge Jacqueline Thomason’s plan works, inmates at the Orange County Jail will go to chapel in the mornings instead of to a courtroom.

But they won’t be there to pray; they will be watching television.

As Thomason envisions it, the inmates would receive a private screening of sorts. On the tube would be their judge, seated in a courtroom across Flower Street in downtown Santa Ana. That judge, watching on his or her own television set, would ask each inmate for a plea--guilty or not guilty.

Inmates would have their first day in court without ever stepping outside the jail. It would be for misdemeanor cases only, but Thomason is convinced that there is something in the idea that would benefit both the courts and the inmates.

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Time, Money Savings

“We would see an enormous savings in both time and money,” she said. “And in most cases, the inmates could get released a lot sooner.”

On most days, about 80 inmates at a time come into court for misdemeanor arraignments. Some lawyers refer to it as “the cattle call.”

If the arraignments were televised and the inmates did not have to leave the jail, it would spare them being brought to court in leg chains, or waiting in a crowded holding cell in the courthouse basement for the bus ride back to jail.

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A few years from now, Thomason predicts, every court district in Orange County will conduct televised arraignments routinely. But right now, she’s having a hard time getting approval for the pilot program in Central Municipal Court.

Robert Kuhel, Central Court administrator, is trying to iron out the problems and hopes TV arraignments will take place in Orange County early next year.

Bill to Allow Just That

There is a bill on Gov. George Deukmejian’s desk right now that would allow misdemeanor arraignments by television in Orange County. But county officials say the bill is fairly useless unless it can be amended. And it probably can’t be amended until it is supported by the Orange County public defender’s office, which is leery of the whole idea.

The bill does not allow the court to accept guilty pleas via television. And more than half the people arraigned in misdemeanor court plead guilty, court officials say.

Those people would have to be re-arraigned in person.

“If we can’t take guilty pleas by television, the whole thing would just not be cost-effective,” Kuhel said.

But the public defender’s office has a lot of problems with the guilty pleas.

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Chief Deputy Public Defender Carl Holmes wants a guarantee that the public defender’s office would have someone at the jail to consult with inmates before they plead guilty. Accommodating lawyers coming in and out of the jail, however, may pose problems with jail officials, who already are beset with security problems because of overcrowding. Holmes also wants guarantees that police reports would be readily available at arraignments so that the public defender’s office could review them before advising an inmate.

Deputy Public Defender Raymond Ortiz, who is in charge of municipal court operations for his office, is generally against televised arraignments.

“It might produce cost-efficiency, but does it produce due process?” Ortiz asked. He suggested that some inmates booked on misdemeanors are often “overcharged” when arrested, and end up pleading guilty to a higher charge than necessary because they do not have proper legal advice.

Kuhel and others in favor of television arraignments hope the public defenders can be convinced. They point to San Bernardino County, which started using television arraignments last year. San Bernardino officials are so pleased by the procedure that they have begun holding felony arraignments by television. And they are making plans to expand televised arraignments to a branch jail in Ontario.

Most persons arraigned on misdemeanors in San Bernardino County do plead guilty, according to Municipal Judge Art McKinster, who handles the televised arraignments.

“We think it’s a tremendous system,” McKinster said. “It saves the inmate a lot of problems.” If they are going to be released, they don’t have to wait around court all day for the bus to go back to the jail so that they can be processed out, he said, adding that the system reduces by two-thirds the number of people needed to handle prisoners for arraignment.

If the televised arraignments are to work, the consent of the Sheriff’s Department, which administers the jail, will be essential. Despite the chronic overcrowding, Undersheriff Raul Ramos says the problems television might raise are not insurmountable.

“Our concern is to make sure that all the judges are behind it,” he said. “If they are, we’ll work it out.”

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Under the plan conceived by Court Administrator Kuhel, a court clerk would be stationed in the arraignment room--the chapel is considered the only suitable place in the jail now for such proceedings--along with a representative from the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices.

Inmates would have the right to refuse the televised arraignment and instead could go to court in person. (Inmates in San Bernardino have that same right, but fewer than 1% exercise it, Judge McKinster said.)

Family and friends of inmates would have the right to monitor the proceedings by showing up in the courtroom where the judge who is presiding over the arraignments is on camera.

While Kuhel is convinced the plan will work in Orange County, he takes pains to emphasize that county officials have put a lot of thought into it.

“We’ve had a long tradition in this country of appearing before the judge,” he said. “We’d be leaving that tradition with some tremendous concerns.”


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