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Video arraignments could replace 'perp walks'

Walking a line of chained prisoners between jail and court may become a thing of the past if Kitsap County installs a new system that allows defendants to complete their arraignment via a video link.

“I’m behind this idea,” said Kitsap County Sheriff Steve Boyer. “It will save us time and money while increasing courthouse safety.”

Aside from the Sheriff’s Office, the concept has received support from the prosecutor, the public defender, the county clerk, the jail system and both the District and Superior courts.

The generally pro-forma arraignment process represents the first step in a prosecution. The defendant appears before the judge and enters a plea.

It is also when bail is set, or denied.

Currently, the prisoners are manacled together and escorted in a line into a courtroom, where they are seated in the jury box.

They are each unchained as they appear in front of the judge, and re-chained after their arraignment is complete.

They are then walked back to the jail.

Supporters of the video arraignment process say the process decreases interaction between prisoners and the public — something not everyone supports.

In some cases, for example, a victim’s family strives to hold the accused responsible for their actions by their presence, even as personal interaction is forbidden.

On the other hand, there are several opportunities for the public to observe the defendant during the actual trial. And the public is able to attend the arraignment and watch the onscreen proceedings.

High-visibility prisoners are sometimes isolated, but are usually placed within the group.

In all cases, jail personnel is used for prisoner security.

Video arraignment would allow staff to stay within the jail, which would also increase overall security.

With a video arraignment system, which is already in place in Port Orchard and Poulsbo, the defendant and their attorney will be brought into a specially equipped cell one at a time with live cameras on both the judge and the defendant, enabling each to interact with the other.

While some systems rely on fax machines to transmit signed documents between the locations, the step needed to make the process work is the installation of electronic signature machines.

This aspect, according to District Court Administrator Maury Baker, is the one step that will push the courts toward a truly paperless operation.

“This technology will be able to help us in a much broader sense,” Baker said. “The next step is for people to be able to go online and view court documents from their homes as they are processed.”

As connections and technology improves, arraignments could be conducted while the attorneys are in their offices.

This also increases security because it decreases the number of times that the jail door is opened.

Defense attorneys embrace the video arraignment idea because it helps their client.

“I like video arraignments because it allows me to advise my client just by muting the sound or moving off-camera,” said Kitsap County Public Defender Clarke Tibbets. “You don’t have that kind of privacy in an open courtroom.”

Kitsap County Superior Court Presiding Judge Russell Hartman doesn’t see a down side to video arraignment, saying that it increases the ability for the public to understand the judicial process.

Hartman said there may be some cases where video arraignment is not appropriate and the judge prefers a face-to-face meeting. And he does not favor extending the use of video interaction for any other court procedures.

Kitsap County Director of Information Services Bud Harris said the technology is already in place, aside from the machine that transmits electronic signatures.

He said that the cost of the machine is about $20,000, and can be paid for with previously allocated law enforcement funds.

Harris said he hoped to have a working video arraignment system in place by January.

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