Ready for Prime Time? : Money-saving video arraignments grow in popularity

County by county, court by court, the practice of video arraignments is catching on. It’s an idea worth pursuing.

One of the criminal courts in downtown Los Angeles has used video arraignments for more than two years, and just recently the practice started in the San Pedro branch. Both are municipal courts, where the bulk of arraignments occur. San Diego and San Bernardino have also used the technology.

On Tuesday Orange County, which has discussed the possibility of video arraignments for nearly 10 years, began its own experiment.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department spends up to $8 million a year moving inmates, with much of that sum going to transport prisoners to and from appearances at the five courthouses in the county.


Under the one-year experiment, the county will have 50 or more inmates a day enter pleas and have their bail set via video, without leaving the main jail in Santa Ana.

An inmate and the inmate’s lawyer, at the jail, will see the judge and the prosecutor in the courtroom several blocks away in Santa Ana by monitor, and vice versa. The necessary paperwork will be exchanged through facsimile machines.

The county has spent $120,000 on video equipment but expects a small net savings the first year on transportation costs. A bonus is improved security, because, the county says, 60% of its maximum-security escapees make their getaways when being transferred.

The video arraignments can help relieve the chronic overcrowding in county jails. In Orange County, for example, an inmate hauled into court and then set free now must wait until the court day ends; he or she is transported back to the jail to be released.

A number of judges have been skeptical about video arraignments, wondering whether they would save as much money as proponents contend and if courtroom operations could be duplicated in a jail. Fortunately, jurisdictions in Southern California are willing to experiment. The counties need all the help they can get in cutting expenses and improving security.