Have your day in court via secure Web video

SANDUSKY Erie County Common Pleas Court will christen its new video-conferencing system on a felon f
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

Erie County Common Pleas Court will christen its new video-conferencing system on a felon from Canada.

Court and county officials say the long-awaited system will officially be used before the end of the year, though possibly within the next month.

"It's just like Webcams, basically, only a little more sophisticated," said Todd Dempsey, the Erie County Sheriff's captain who has headed up the program from the sheriff's end. "We're trying to gear the Canada case as the kickoff for the program."

Why test it on a Canadian who's facing low-level felonies for forgery, misuse of credit cards and stolen property?

"It's a major cost savings," Dempsey said.

Erie County IT director Bob Lange estimated the video-conferencing system will save the sheriff's office anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 in Nicola Edwards' case, since it eliminates the need to transport him to the states.

The $48,000 system has been on the want list for Erie County Common Pleas court for some time, but Lange and others are close to wrapping up loose ends and giving it the green light.

It was tested once in Judge Tygh Tone's courtroom, but it hasn't been used officially, Dempsey said.

The system includes an LCD television in each courtroom, and a swiveling camera mounted on top of the TV.

A similar setup would have to be on the opposite end, such as a prison, so both ends can communicate back and forth with sight and sound.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, or ODRC, has a system where inmates with court dates can appear in county courtrooms by way of a video-conferencing program.

ODRC's program is primarily used for educational and medical purposes, but also for court hearings. The educational aspect is for inmates enrolled in school, while the medical aspect lets inmates appear in front of a doctor without leaving prison, said Julie Walburn, department spokeswoman.

Both those systems are also used for court appearances, Walburn said.

"A lot of it is based on what the court wants to do," Walburn said. "A lot of it is used on a case-by-case basis."

That said, Erie County officials are taking an ambitious step as they roll out their new program.

Canadian Nicola Edwards is currently in an Ontario prison for criminal charges in that country, but he was indicted by an Erie County grand jury in June 2007 for crimes allegedly committed here.

Rather than have someone schlep Edwards across the border for his arraignment, Common Pleas Judge Roger Binette has agreed to try out the new video-conferencing system in his courtroom -- as long as it preserves Edwards' rights.

"Economically it's very feasible," said Mary Ann Barylski, Erie County's chief assistant prosecutor. "And yet you can still preserve his rights. That's paramount."

Binette said he initially had some concerns, explaining that there are limited uses for the system.

If Edwards' case were to proceed to a trial phase, for instance, Edwards would have to be brought to the states to appear in person.

Dempsey said he hopes the case plays out within the next month, though Barylski said it's likely to occur at least before year's end.

At a recent county commissioners meeting, Lange, the county's IT director, said the system could save the county up to $125,000 on labor costs by erasing the need for prisoner transportation. Other savings -- additional thousands of dollars -- could be saved in fuel costs.

Among the Erie County and state agencies that will be tied into the Erie County's video-conferencing system: the county jail, Common Pleas Court, ODRC and its many prisons, and the Ohio Department of Youth Services.

Binette cautioned that the projected savings may be a little too generous, since the program can't be used as frequently as some suspect.

"Some people in the system have this belief we can use it for all kinds of stuff," Binette said.

Whatever the case, Dempsey said he's excited the system is on the horizon. He credited Lange for spearheading the project.

"He's a tremendous asset to the county," Dempsey said of Lange. "He's one of the major drivers behind the new program."

But the benefits of the new system won't be seen in dollars alone, either.

Dempsey said there's an unspoken security benefit, since inmates won't have to be driven around.

"It's a whole gamut of things," Dempsey said.