Use of video arraignments praised, expected to grow
SHAMOKIN - Officials say arraigning defendants by video has saved Northumberland County and municipalities hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless man hours while allowing the court system to be more efficient.
The ingenuity and generosity of Magisterial District Judge John Gembic III of Shamokin is credited with the establishment of video arraignments in 2004 at magistrates' homes, police departments, the prison, President Judge Robert B. Sacavage's chambers and the offices of the court administrator, public defender, district attorney and sheriff.
The system, which has advanced in technology from MSN Messenger to Skype, continues to expand and also has been used by Gembic and Magisterial District Judge Hugh Jones of Mount Carmel to conduct preliminary hearings for inmates at the county jail and state correctional institutions.
Gembic said magisterial district judges met with Sacavage, other county court officials and state police Thursday in Sunbury to discuss hooking up to another system, known as Polycom, used by state police. He said the advanced video arraignment system is accessible to all law enforcement agencies.
Gembic said court officials are in favor of trying the system on a trial-free basis sometime soon.
"Video arraignments have streamlined the arraignment procedure by allowing defendants charged with criminal offenses to be arraigned at the arresting officer's police station instead of a judge's courtroom after normal business hours," Gembic said Wednesday. "Judges working from their homes arraign defendants, which eliminates the need for police to transport defendants to the on-call judge, who could be in Shamokin, Mount Carmel, Sunbury or Milton."
1,800 since 2004
Each arraignment done by video saves two or three hours for police, which allows them more time to be on the street, Gembic said.
Although he doesn't keep official statistics on video arraignments, Gembic, whose office handles more than 500 criminal cases per year, estimated he has conducted approximately 200 by video per year - 1,800 total - since 2004. At an estimated minimum savings of $200 in manpower hours, fuel and vehicle maintenance for each, that's $360,000 for Gembic's office alone.
There were four other magisterial judges in the county when video arraignments began, and now there are three including Jones, Benjamin Apfelbaum of Sunbury and Senior Magisterial District Judge Richard Cashman, who's handling cases in the Milton district until a magistrate is elected this year to replace Robert Bolton, who retired in 2012.
Senior Magisterial District Judge Michael Mychak also conducts on-call arraignments.
Started with $650
In 2004, Gembic said he spent approximately $650 to purchase computer cameras for the judges' offices, police stations and other law enforcement agencies. He built MSN Messenger sites at each office and developed a contact list, then trained every department. The "countless hours" have been worth it, he said, because of the benefits.
The system is available countywide, but is primarily used by himself, Jones and Mychak.
Gembic said video arraignment equipment also allows county police departments to better communicate with each other.
The judge said defendants don't have any say about how their arraignments are conducted, but can object to having their preliminary hearings conducted through video. Gembic said preliminary hearings by video don't occur too often and must be conducted with the defendant's permission. The judge said there have been several times when county or state inmates have objected to preliminary hearings by video.
Gembic said video arraignments were only conducted in a few Pennsylvania counties before they were approved and implemented in Northumberland County.
Central booking push
Gembic commended Sacavage and District Attorney Tony Rosini for supporting video arraignments and the use of 21st century technology.
Sacavage said it has worked "marvelously."
"It's saved a considerable amount of time for magistrates and police officers and also saved hundreds of thousands of dollars for the county and municipalities," he said.
Gembic hopes to see Sacavage's push for a central booking/holding cell at the county prison become reality, too.
Under that system, those who commit crimes during late evening or early morning hours would be taken by police to the prison, where they would be held for arraignment the next day by the magisterial district judge in whose jurisdiction the crime occurred.
"It would allow defendants to cool down before facing a judge, especially people involved in domestic disturbances," Gembic said. "The defendants would be responsible for paying a process fee at the center and they would go before a judge who would be more familiar with their background than a judge from the other end of the county."
The central booking proposal also was discussed at Thursday's meeting, Gembic said.
Defendants benefit, too
Gembic said arraigning and conducting preliminary hearings for defendants as soon as possible allows the court system to operate more efficiently by reducing the backlog of cases.
For inmates charged with less serious crimes, such as probation violations, video arraignments benefit defendants because they don't have to wait several days to go personally in front of a judge. Transportation and paperwork issues can sometimes cause delays in having inmates arraigned and transported to their preliminary hearings.
Gembic estimated the average stay in prison for an inmate is two weeks.
"By arraigning them and conducting their hearings as quick as possible, the time they spend in prison can be cut in half," he said.