Extension of Arraignments by Video Sought

Times Staff Writer

The experimental use of video cameras in the arraignment of inmates at Glendale City Jail has so improved security and expedited cases that officials want it extended for a second year, according to a report on the project.

The Glendale project was the first of its kind in the county when it began a yearlong test in May, 1986. The system eliminates the need to transport most defendants because cameras and monitors link the inmate and defense lawyer at the City Jail with the judge and prosecutor in a courtroom a block away.

"We believe it's a real success," court administrator Karla Olson said.

Of 3,618 people arraigned in Glendale Municipal Court during the county-financed test, about 93% were recorded on video, according to a report by Olson. A prisoner can refuse to participate in the electronic arraignment and instead exercise his constitutional right to appear before a judge.

2 Chose Personal Appearance

Only two defendants have exercised the right to choose to appear in person, but 262 other inmates could not appear on camera, mostly because their cases were processed after the daily video session or because legal complications required their presence in court, according to Olson.

During an arraignment, a judge informs the accused of the charges and his or her constitutional rights. Depending on the seriousness of the charge and the plea entered, the defendant is released or returned to jail. The proceeding usually takes five to 10 minutes.

Video arraignments have helped improve courthouse security, Olson said. Keeping defendants at the jail eliminates the potential for escape attempts and other risks to judges, workers and visitors.

"That's something you can't measure in dollars and cents," she said.

More Efficient System

The system also improved the flow of cases, the report said. The Glendale court daily hears 10 to 30 arraignments. Because officials set them all for one period to make concentrated use of the video equipment, many of the hearings that previously stretched throughout the day are now completed by 12:30 p.m.

The quicker pace also benefits defendants, who now are released earlier in the day, Olson said. The program includes inmates transported from Sheriff's Department jails for arraignment as well as those housed in the Glendale jail.

"It's a lot more humane and comfortable for them, too," she added. "Instead of coming into the courtroom all shackled together, they can talk to the judge one-to-one on camera."

However, the system has caused some difficulty for the district attorney's office, Olson said. The office handles cases for Glendale police, the Crescenta Valley Sheriff's Station and the California Highway Patrol. Because all arraignments are set for the morning, prosecutors sometimes must work into the night to complete paper work and get it to the court clerk the next day.

Adds Some Pressure

"It has required us to reschedule our efforts," Deputy Dist. Atty. John P. Bernardi said. "It does put some pressure on us to get the work out at one time rather than spreading it more evenly through the day."

But Public Defender Michael P. Judge said the morning schedule allows his office's attorneys to work uninterrupted during afternoon trials.

"This frees public defenders for cases and minimizes the need for the court to instead appoint private lawyers to represent defendants," Judge said.

The video system cost the county $70,700 for the first year, including $52,500 for purchasing and maintaining the equipment and $18,200 to build a video detention room at the jail. The equipment has been free of major technical problems, Olson said.

Last week, the Countywide Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CCJCC), a group responsible for improving the criminal justice system, voted to ask the Board of Supervisors for $20,000 to continue the project for another year. That would include $5,000 for maintenance and $15,000 for possible modifications at the jail video room.

Olson said she hopes to expand the video system to other types of criminal hearings, such as for bench warrant arrests.

Bob Mimura, CCJCC executive director, said the experimental program was not intended to save money but to test the feasibility and acceptance of video technology in the courtroom.

"Any new system costs more just to start it up," he said. "But if we can show it offers benefits and could be applied in other areas, that justifies the cost. The savings will come down the line."

Toward that end, Mimura said, the CCJCC is considering a similar video hookup between the Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles and several courtrooms at the Compton courthouse, about 15 miles away. The system would be used at first for arraignments but could be expanded to other hearings compatible with video technology.

A downtown-Compton video link eventually would save the county money and time spent transporting defendants to arraignments, Mimura said. The Sheriff's Department now moves about 2,000 inmates daily from the jail to courts throughout the county for arraignments and other criminal hearings.

But such a project would face bigger obstacles than were present in Glendale, Mimura said. The distance and greater number of lines would increase the cost substantially, and the myriad county agencies involved would have to be persuaded to accept the cameras.

"Widespread support is very important, because this type of thing requires a lot of cooperation between courts, prosecutors, public defenders, the sheriff, police and the jail," he said. "It's sometimes hard to get that kind of coordination going."

A lack of support hurt a similar yearlong program for expert-witness testimony begun last year at Torrance Municipal Court. Defense lawyers were reluctant to question experts in drunk-driving cases on video.

Last week officials decided to use the Torrance video system for arraignments and other pretrial hearings and to drop its use for expert testimony, Torrance court administrator Chris Crawford said.

During planning for the Glendale project, officials studied video arraignment systems in San Bernardino and San Diego counties and in Dade County, Fla.

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