Judge Gerald A. Williams on the success of an expanded video arraignment system in the justice system
Judge Gerald A. Williams on the success of an expanded video arraignment system in the justice system.
Photos courtesy of Gerald A. Williams
For people with limited resources, the simple act of receiving a traffic ticket can start a series of events that has a devastating impact on their lives. An unpaid ticket, even if it’s for an alleged civil traffic violation, will likely trigger a driver license suspension. If they’re pulled over again, as of now, they’ll likely be charged with the criminal offense of driving on a suspended license. If that person’s car insurance has also expired, then their car will probably be impounded.
The downward spiral can continue because without transportation, many will not even be able to get to work. Without a job, defendants can neither pay even minimal payments toward their criminal court fines nor even get to a courthouse. Even in urban settings, many courthouses are not on bus or mass transit routes. And, yes, judges frequently sign arrest warrants for failure to appear.
Throughout Maricopa County, defendants were being repeatedly arrested in connection with unpaid misdemeanor fines. While they would often be given credit toward payment of their fines for time served, non-violent defendants were frequently serving several days in jail for offenses like driving on a suspended license or for criminal speeding, even though none of them were originally ordered to jail as part of their sentence. There had to be a better way.
Former Maricopa County Presiding Justice of the Peace C. Steven McMurry and Maricopa County Justice Court Administrator Jeff Fine examined and then championed the idea of expanding a video arraignment system and also putting a system in place to resolve open charges. With the Video Appearance Center (VAC), judges are required to be available at a specific time each day in the event someone has been arrested on a warrant they signed. Prosecutors and public defenders are also available.
The VAC was arguably an overnight success. In the first 18 days, justices of the peace were able to see 434 defendants and were able to reduce jail time by 53 percent. The sheriff’s office ultimately turned six vacant positions back to Maricopa County.
There are often case-specific issues that pop up and the VAC requires ongoing coordination with representatives from the County Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, and Court Interpretation and Translations Services. If a defendant has open charges, a deputy county attorney and (when appropriate) a public defender will be notified. In many cases with open charges, a plea agreement can be negotiated at that time. Cases can be heard by either the assigned judge, by video link, or by a pro tem judge in person.
In 2017, 7,068 in-custody defendants were seen through VAC. Public defenders were involved in 718 cases and other attorneys with the Office of Public Defense Services represented 63 defendants. The VAC also excelled in resolving pending misdemeanor charges: 702 defendants entered into plea agreements and 718 pled guilty directly to a judge. Court interpreters were needed and were used for 120 defendants. Also in 2017, the Arizona Association of Counties presented its Summit Award in Criminal Justice and Public Safety to Maricopa for its Video Appearance Center.
What It Was Like Before the VAC
Justices of the Peace in Maricopa County generally were seeing in-custody prisoners one day each week. These appearances were called video arraignments; but in many cases, the cases had been adjudicated and there were no actual pending charges. These video appearances were helpful; but problems remained.
By way of example, the North Valley Justice Court conducted video appearances on Thursdays. Doing so was of little comfort to people arrested on a Friday, who would then have to wait until the following Thursday if they were unable to post a bond.
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office was an early supporter of the VAC. It was using significant time and was spending significant money to transport in-custody defendants in vans to 26 justice courts. In addition to being a poor use of resources, there was also a public safety hazard because some justice court defendants also had pending violent felonies. Transporting someone pending a homicide charge to appear on a criminal traffic ticket was ill advised; but it happened often.
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