The law requires that persons charged with a crime have the opportunity to appear before a judge within 48 hours when no warrant was involved and 72 hours when a person is arrested under a warrant.
Until recently, this required transporting the person charged from the jail to a courtroom. “This is not a great distance,” said Sheriff Thomas Brown, “but it involves bringing the inmate through the same entryways used by the general public. There are risks to staff, law enforcement officials and the public.”
The DeKalb County Sherriff’s Office has initiated a pilot program that offers an alternative. The accused can be brought to a small courtroom inside the jail and face a judge through video conferencing. Chief Magistrate Judge Berryl A. Anderson and Brown demonstrated the system at a March 26 news conference.
The judge and the defendant face one another on a video screen. Attorneys and others can be present just as they are at a face-to-face hearing. In addition to creating a safer situation for the public and for jail employees, video conferencing is safer for the judge and the accused, the sheriff said. He added that eliminating the need to transport the inmate to the courthouse also saves manpower and money.
Brown explained that such systems are widely used in California and Florida, and have been implemented in other metro Atlanta jurisdictions, including Cobb and Gwinnett counties. “Normally, we’re out front with the newest innovations, but budget restrictions kept us from doing this sooner.” He explained the $40,000 needed to set up the system came from confiscated drug money at no cost to taxpayers.
“Sheriff Brown is very creative about finding money to get what we need,” Anderson said.
Video conferencing, which DeKalb County has been using for approximately 60 days, is being implemented in phases. It will be used for first-appearance hearings for inmates charged with felonies. “We’re starting with inmates charged with the most serious crimes—what we call ‘the seven deadly sins,’ murder, rape, etc. These are the situations in which emotions normally run high and there is the greatest need to look out for the safety of those the inmate is exposed to.”
Anderson explained that at first-appearance hearings there is a formal reading of the charges against the defendant, bail is set and the judge determines whether a public defender needs to be appointed.
Brown said the video conferencing in no way abridges the rights of the accused and neither inmates nor lawyers have complained. “All they want is a chance to appear before a judge as quickly as possible and have an opportunity for bail. They get that.”