The first court appearances of people arrested and held at the Penobscot County Jail are being done in person again rather than by video from the jail. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

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.

Credit: John Clarke Russ

Even as his department has to transport inmates to the courthouse, Morton said the change to in-person arraignments won’t require more staff.

“The officers who were doing court functions such as showing inmates the video that explains their rights, doing court paperwork, now will be working as transport officers,” he said.

Morton said he is unsure of how much the change will cost his department, if it costs anything at all.

First appearances by video still are an option if a defendant cannot be transported to the courthouse for health or safety reasons, Morton said.

At the overcrowded Penobscot County Jail, the end of most video court appearances has freed up some visit spaces. Financial screeners and lawyers of the day no longer have to use the spaces — where inmates speak with visitors through a phone system while separated by plexiglass — to prepare for first appearances.

The small meeting room that was used for video conferencing will continue to be used for that purpose when defendants cannot be taken to the courthouse. The county hasn’t decided on a permanent use for the room, Morton said.

First appearances by video began when the Penobscot Judicial Center opened in late 2009. Then-Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross estimated it would cost up to $280,000 per year to transport prisoners to and from the jail and for extra personnel to guard them.

At the time, the state’s judicial branch also thought first appearances by video conference would save money.

Before the courthouse opened on Exchange Street, it was located across a parking lot from the jail, making in-person appearances less complicated.