The Walker County Courthouse recently underwent renovations enabling the judges to conduct video arraignment for Walker County Jail inmates, enhancing safety, minimizing costs and putting court proceedings in compliance with the law.
Video arraignments will allow inmates to be “present” in court without having to physically be transported to the courthouse.
“Video arraignment is designed to not have to bring inmates into the courtroom but it’s still face to face,” Walker County Judge Danny Pierce said. “Security, I think, is the primary reason for this. Economic is number two. It should be better all around.”
Walker County Courthouse officials went through training last week to learn how to operate and utilize the new technology which includes movable 90” flat screen televisions with built in cameras and microphones in all the courtrooms.
The first live felony jail docket is planned to take place April 11.
“I think they’re pretty much ready to use it,” Sherri Pegoda, county judge administrative assistant said. “I think it’s going to take some getting used to but it’s set up and ready to go. The jail was there and we actually ran through it, we turned our side on and they turned their side on and it worked great. The equipment is in place and ready to use but it’s just going to be getting used to the process.”
All court proceedings aside from grand juries, are legally supposed to be open to the public. However, prior to the renovations in the courthouse, this was not the case with the Walker County Courthouse. Whenever inmates were formerly brought in for hearings, the public was not allowed to be in the courtroom and had no way of watching or listening to the trial.
With the new technology, the public will be able to safely watch video arraignments in the courtroom or in a separate room to which the proceedings are broadcasted. This separate room can also serve as an overflow room for high profile cases.
“The courtroom is going to be open to the public now because you don’t have the security issue with all the inmates sitting there and then the public coming in on top of that,” Pegoda said. “Now the public and the family can come into the courtroom and watch the proceedings because the inmate won’t be there so you won’t have those security risks and they’ll be able to watch in on the screen. “
Additional rooms are also available in both the courthouse and the jail which will allow counselors to speak with their clients privately.
“The public still has the view, but they’re not in the same room,” Jail Administrator Captain Steve Fisher said. “Technically, besides the grand jury all court proceedings are public and so, really that probably hasn’t been handled the right way, but you have to look at safety. This will give us a lot more options than we’ve had before and will make it so that it’s open to the public.”
Although the courthouse had to make changes to accommodate the new system, the jail which was built almost a year ago came pre-wired for video arraignment. The construction of the jail came under budget by $722,000 enabling the jail and courthouse to allot roughly $300,000 of the leftover money for the video arraignment system.
“When we started talking about building the new jail, we always wanted to include
in the plans but the sheriff promised the taxpayers that we weren’t going to do anything we didn’t have to do—bells and whistles were not something that we had to have,” Fisher said. “We were going to be as technological and upgraded as we could by the state standards but we weren’t going to go overboard. We kept our promise in doing so, we were able to save enough money to do this project and still save additional money in the long run. Hopefully that is a sign of how we were being very diligent and cautious with the taxpayers’ money.”
According to Pegoda and Pierce, in the past couple of weeks the courthouse had two inmates get into a fight and another inmate who went “totally ballistic like he lost his mind” forcing the need for the Sherriff’s office and the Huntsville Police Department to retain him.
“Every time you have to move inmates, you try to limit movement,” Fisher said. “So it’s the same thing with the courts. If you can minimize the movement of loading them all up, taking them into town, unloading them, then you’ve got that risk of getting from the vans to the courthouse—it puts extra risk on everyone who’s conducting normal business, it’s a risk to citizens, it’s a risk to the community if they were to get loose or if anything were to happen. So the more you can minimize that risk, the better.”
In addition to maximizing security and updating the courthouse to compliance with the law, video arraignment will also save money by cutting down on fuel costs and manpower.
Fisher said that he and Walker County Sheriff Clint McRae have extended an offer to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to also utilize the jail’s video arraignment system in extradition cases.
According to Fisher, the two entities will meet March 31 to finalize procedure.