published Monday, January 25th, 2010

Criminal courts finally get tech upgrade


by Monica Mercer

WHAT IS A CRIMINAL ARRAIGNMENT?

An arraignment is where a criminal defendant is confronted with the charges against him and enters a plea, usually “not guilty.”

After years of working with antiquated equipment that has made routine business a logistical mess, all three Hamilton County criminal courts are in the final stages of a technological makeover.

The biggest change will allow criminal court judges to conduct arraignments via video, technology that already is common in courts across the nation.

“We’re playing catch-up,” said Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman, who praised the new equipment already in his courtroom in the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts Building.

Other upgrades include state-of-the-art sound systems in each courtroom and equipment that allows lawyers wirelessly to present exhibits and other media to juries during trials.

Until now, trials featured tangles of electrical cords on the floor from portable projectors and screens and a poor sound that often left jurors wondering what had been said.

The entire upgrade will cost $220,031, county officials said. The money is coming out of the county general fund, which is supplied from local tax dollars.

The makeover badly was needed, said Shawn Johnson, the county’s criminal justice and public safety coordinator. Hamilton County Circuit and Chancery Courts already have had such technology upgrades.

“The major complaint we heard from jurors is that they couldn’t hear or see anything” during trials, Mr. Johnson said.

Judges will be able to control every electronic function of the courtroom from consoles at their benches. For example, because each courtroom now has 16 speakers, the judge can turn up the volume for a jury without affecting other speakers, officials said.

The judges are expected to begin video arraignments in the coming weeks.

The video conference equipment also can allow witnesses to testify from remote locations.

Court officials agreed the video arraignments will add a layer of security to daily court matters. Officers no longer will be required to funnel prisoners in and out of the courtrooms during such hearings.

Inmates will be allowed to come to court in person for other types of hearings, officials said.

The five General Sessions courts, which are one floor below the Criminal Courts and serve as the first stop for county criminal cases, do not have video conference capabilities.

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