A decade after judges started seeing Penobscot County Jail inmates via video for their first court appearances, the county has switched back to having the defendants show up in person.
Since late last month, defendants at the jail have been making the nearly half-mile trip through downtown Bangor to the Penobscot Judicial Center rather than speaking to judges via videoconference from a room at the jail with a lawyer at their side.
The change comes 10 years after the county switched to video appearances with the opening of the new courthouse on Exchange Street, a move that the Penobscot County sheriff at the time said would keep the county from spending an additional $280,000 annually in transportation and personnel costs. The change also makes Penobscot County an outlier in Maine. Just two other county courts — in Cumberland and Knox counties — regularly conduct first court appearances in person.
While the video appearances were intended to save money, county officials said the technology was often unreliable and the arrangement made it difficult for defense lawyers and prosecutors to communicate when they weren’t in the same room. However, one defense lawyer said video arraignments allowed him to prevent his clients from incriminating themselves before a judge and allowed cases to proceed more quickly.
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In Penobscot County, Sheriff Troy Morton, District Attorney Marianne Lynch and others decided that holding the proceeding in person would benefit nearly all involved, especially defendants, according to Peter Schleck, manager of Penobscot County Court Operations.
Judicial officers and courtroom clerks can’t be at the jail during video appearances, Schleck said, and videoconference technology failures made it so defendants sometimes had to show up in person anyway.
Defendants generally make their initial court appearances within 48 hours of their arrest. It’s when they hear about the charges they’re facing and the potential penalties they face, they’re assigned an attorney if they can’t afford one, and the judge sets bail. Defendants charged with less serious misdemeanor crimes sometimes plead guilty or not guilty at that first appearance.
Holding those appearances in person, with all parties in the same room, makes it easier to make arrangements for defendants that don’t require bail, said Lynch, the lead prosecutor for Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.
“When parties are separated there is often no easy way to communicate, and that can result in delays in releasing someone who may be able to be in the community with additional monitoring or support,” she said.
The in-person interactions can also help judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers identify “significant mental health issues early that may impact their court process,” she said.
But the video arraignments had some advantages, said Bangor lawyer Zachary Smith, who often acts as the lawyer of the day for defendants who are in custody before they’ve been assigned attorneys.
“One of the advantages of video arraignments is I can mute defendants who start to say things that they shouldn’t,” he said. “There’s better space for client meetings before court appearances and cases are processed more quickly.”
But Smith agreed the in-person arraignments will put an end to technical difficulties and make it easier to communicate with prosecutors.
“I also can speak with family members of defendants who are in court to support them,” he said.