Thomas King Kistler | Centre County courts working hard with technology to save taxpayer money

The Centre County Court is always looking for opportunities to continue to provide justice to all of the residents of Centre County while minimizing the resources (from taxes) necessary to operate the courts.

In the past 16 years, Centre County has grown from a two-judge county to a four-judge county.

During that time, the criminal caseload has increased to 2,231 cases per year. There have been increases in the filings of civil cases, divorces, custody cases and all other matters. Furthermore, there has been greatly increased activity with filings that were not common years ago, such as protection from abuse petitions.

One of the technological innovations that has assisted the court in operating more efficiently with this increased caseload is the use of video-conference appearances in court. Video equipment purchased through a grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency has been installed in each of our four courtrooms so the judge can be linked to the Centre County Correctional Facility and any state prison to communicate directly with inmates or detainees in those facilities.

The true savings associated with the use of this video-conferencing equipment can only be appreciated when you consider the logistical challenge associated with a “typical” hearing with an inmate.

Typically a person convicted of a crime in Centre County and sentenced to state prison is transported by sheriff’s deputies to the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, where he is then “classified” and assigned to a specific state prison within the 28-prison system in Pennsylvania. The prisoner is then transported by the Department of Corrections to that assigned prison. If that prison is, for example, Albion State Correctional Institution near Erie, it is more than three hours, and 204 miles, from the Centre County Courthouse. If the defendant needs to be present to hear and understand a motion filed on his behalf on some post-sentence issue, the Centre County sheriff will have to dispatch a vehicle, with no less than two deputy sheriffs, to drive from Bellefonte to Albion, spend time in the administrative process of having the prisoner released to them, and then drive three hours back to the Centre County Correctional Facility. This will have to be accomplished at least one day, and more likely several days, before the scheduled hearing. The prisoner will have to be housed in the Centre County Correctional Facility and fed and treated medically during this stay.

On the day of the hearing, two deputies will be dispatched to the Centre County Correctional Facility to transport the defendant to the courthouse, to escort him the entire time he is in the courthouse, and to return him to the prison after the hearing.

As soon thereafter as possible, the return trip utilizing the same county car and two sheriff’s deputies driving to and from Albion will have to be accomplished to return the inmate to the that site. In total, the county car will have logged approximately 816 miles, and we will have had more than 30 deputy hours of time utilized in the transportation and supervision of the inmate. Furthermore, we will have the costs associated with housing the inmate for approximately one week. And all of that for what might turn out to be a five-minute hearing, or at most, maybe a one-hour argument.

Enter the technology of the video-conferencing system. The court notifies the Albion officials of the scheduled time and place. When the inmate is needed, the inmate is brought to a designated room within the prison, the TVs are “connected” and the entire matter is concluded with nobody being displaced and with a minimum of additional time or effort. In a typical case, utilizing the distances set forth above, the savings to the county in this case would be at least $1,132.

Over the past several years, the use of video conferencing has been encouraged and has been increasing steadily. In 2013, the court held 113 video conferences and through April 30, the court has conducted approximately 16 video conferences per month.

Not every prisoner needs to come from Erie. Many of them are here in Centre County or nearby, so the mileage and manpower requirements are smaller.

A safe average is that each use of the video-conferencing equipment saves at least $500. Using that average, the savings during 2013 alone totaled approximately $56,500. This year is on pace to exceed the 2013 numbers with potential savings in the neighborhood of $96,000.

The Centre County Court of Common Pleas and all of those associated with the court — from the judges, the staff persons, the sheriff’s deputies and all of the lawyers associated with the various offices — are committed to providing constitutional protection and assurance of justice to all residents and visitors to Centre County.

We are equally committed to the wise use of limited resources to operate the court in the most efficient manner possible. The court will continue to move forward with its use of video conferencing and will continue to seek out solutions and alternatives that wisely and properly preserve taxpayer dollars.