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Lawmakers balk at more video conferencing in juvenile cases

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland court officials are calling for legislation that will expand the use of video conferencing throughout the system, because it could streamline procedures and reduce expenses involved with transporting prisoners.

But legislators have made clear that they are reluctant to expand use of this technology in supervision hearings involving juveniles.

Seeking to ease the burden of case workers traveling to distant locations, the Department of Juvenile Services proposed legislation that would allow juvenile counselors to supplement some of the mandatory monthly home visits with video conferences. The measure requested that video conferencing take the place during one of every three site visits. The bill died in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last month.

Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County, said he voted against the proposal because it denied juveniles an important opportunity to sit down and talk with empathetic adults.

“I have seen video conferencing with adults, and I think that is fine,” Brochin said. “To satisfy this requirement with something so impersonal, just doesn’t do it for me.”

Sen. Stephen S. Hershey, Jr., R-Eastern Shore, agreed that video conferencing is not sufficient for juvenile cases.

“Meetings between a juvenile in the system and their caseworker needs to be conducted in person.” Hershey said, adding that he didn’t think there was a need to decrease the services by offering less visitation. Hershey said that the issues could be resolved with “better resource allocation.”

Sen. Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore, was the lone vote in favor of the legislation.

Gladden called the travel of counselors to remote locations as a “colossal waste of time.” She said that while contact with the children is necessary, there are other safeguards in place and other ways to fulfill the requirement. Gladden also suggested enlisting the help of community advocates or finding counselors that are in the area.

“A counselor traveling three hours to the Eastern Shore is a waste of resources,” Gladden said. “There are needs that the child has in terms of education and employment that the money could be put towards.”

Video conferencing technology is currently used to streamline some court procedures throughout the state. For example, in order to enhance victim safety, the Montgomery County Family Justice Center uses video conferencing in domestic violence hearings where temporary protective orders are requested. Video conferencing is also used in bail reviews, and inmate grievance appeal hearings in various counties.

Another area that judiciary members are looking to utilize video conferencing is in initial hearing and bail process.

Since the September Maryland Court of Appeals decision requiring public defenders to represent economically disadvantaged defendants during the initial bail hearing, the courts and lawmakers alike have been mulling over how to best implement the ruling that could cost up to $30 million.

Judge Ben Clyburn, Chief Judge of the District Court of Maryland, explained that prior to the court’s decision, “defendants were not required to have legal representation. The attorney did not have to be present until a subsequent bail review hearing.”

“This ruling has inspired a closer look at the costs and procedures throughout the judicial process,” said Clyburn.

He said that in effort to resolve this and other issues, the courts propose combining the initial and bail hearings, and implementing the use of video conferencing.

Clyburn said that it would cost $1.9 million to implement the system statewide and that it would cut down on other costs, such as the cost of transporting prisoners and compensating judges for mileage when traveling to places like the Eastern Shore and western Maryland.

“There is always a safety concern in moving prisoners, video conferencing eliminates that.” Clyburn said.

However, Clyburn also acknowledged the concerns of legislators who may oppose expanding video conferencing in the courts.

“Some complain that you can’t quite capture a person’s demeanor through video conferencing. There are physical signs when a person is not telling the truth. Video conferencing makes it difficult to detect [that],” he said.

But Clyburn explained that the technology allows judges to zoom in to get a closer look. Clyburn said he also understand concerns that video conferencing might be impersonal, but he added: “Twenty years ago, the picture and transmission was hazy. Now the technology is so good that it almost feels like you are in the room.”

-Tamieka Briscoe, CNS

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