The frustrated facial expressions in the courtroom said more than spoken words could.
A Christian County sheriff’s deputy stood with a cell phone in his hand as attorneys and a judge were on speaker, watching a television screen. On the screen, a jail inmate stood next to another sheriff’s deputy, also holding a cell phone set to speaker.
The teleconferencing equipment on the Christian County Justice Center campus was sending and receiving video just fine, as long as you like silent movies. Audio transmission was dead in the water, so the courtroom staff improvised with phone calls.
It worked in a pinch, but it’s not the way justice should be administered.
I watched as a courtroom bailiff turned IT professional tried at least twice to reboot the courtroom teleconferencing system, manufactured by a company called Polycom. I am quite certain that scrambling to reboot computer systems is not the sort of work that this courtroom bailiff envisioned he would be doing when he first contemplated a career in law enforcement. Tracking down bad guys, saving lives, solving crimes, protecting the innocent—trying and failing to get a microphone to work correctly.
The third most expensive general revenue line item in Christian County’s 2019 budget is $999,881 for “campus security,” which will pay for deputies to staff the doors and courtrooms of the Christian County Historic Courthouse, Justice Center, and the new circuit court building. The $11.1 million, 34,000-square foot building houses
Construction crews intend to have the three-story, 34,000-square foot Christian County Justice Center Annex in Ozark complete by March 1, 2019. The building carries a price tag of $11.1 million. The Polycom system’s cost are but a small fraction of that, but they need to work properly.
The Polycom system was sold to the citizens of Christian County as a way to conduct safer court hearings. Rather than staffing the jail in such a way that deputies transport jail inmates from one building to another using vans and sally ports, the Polycom system lets the jail staff get more work done with fewer people—when everything works.
“Government agencies work under pressure that most people will ever know. Being able to provide the most clear picture during an emergency situation or keeping multiple departments on the same page is critical,” an excerpt of information from Polycom’s website reads.
Polycom purports that its court system products help circuits save time with arraignments and other short hearings by video, decrease operations costs, lower risks (to inmates, staff and the public) by eliminating prisoner transportation, “improve administrative communication,” and “support child welfare and juvenile justice.”
Jail inmates can potentially wield the ultimate out in that they can ask to make their court appearances in person. Procedurally speaking, the inmate may ask to refuse to appear by the Polycom system and arrange to appear in person. The circuit court building has a detention area and the proper entrances and passageways for that.
The teleconferencing equipment in the circuit court building has to send clear and intelligible video and audio to the jail. The cameras and microphones need to pick up what the judge, defense attorneys and prosecuting attorneys are doing and saying. There is no room for guesswork. The inmate in the jail needs to be able to communicate clearly and easily with their attorney and with the judge, leaving no doubt as to the answers being given to questions that will affect multiple lives in the future.
On top of all of that, the audio and the video needs to be transmitted from one building to another with complete security. Courtroom discussions are often incredibly sensitive and personal in nature. It’s imperative that courtroom conferences be technologically secure.
I don’t know what the solution is to the communications issue on the Christian County Justice Center campus. Like the frustrated sheriff’s deputy, I am also not an IT professional. I do believe that Christian County’s leaders need to address these communication issues, and attack them in such a way that long-term, secure solutions can be reached.