The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors gave tentative approval this week to an experimental program in the Glendale court system that would allow prisoners to enter their pleas without leaving City Jail.
The six-month pilot program is designed to allow criminal suspects to be arraigned through a television hookup from the jail to the courthouse, rather than appear in person before a judge. Similar video arraignments have proved successful in other cities, county officials say.
In the belief that the project will save the county time and money, the Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed Tuesday to begin soliciting bids for the video equipment. The system could be installed in Glendale as early as this summer and, if successful, could be implemented in 24 other cities that have court systems in the county.
At arraignments, the first step in judicial proceedings after an arrest, suspects hear the charges that have been filed against them and respond by pleading guilty, not guilty or no contest. Bail also is reviewed.
Television arraignments are becoming "the wave of the future" and already are widely used in San Diego County and San Bernardino County, said Jim Iamurri, a deputy to Supervisor Mike Antonovich.
About five years ago, when the concept of video arraignments was first discussed in legal circles, critics raised questions about the procedure. Arraignment is a crucial step in the judicial process, and critics were concerned about the impersonal nature of arraigning suspects by television, Glendale Municipal Judge Barbara Lee Burke said.
"But now that it has been tried elsewhere and proven successful, I think everyone is in agreement that it works very well and nothing is being compromised," said Burke, who visited San Diego earlier this week to check the system's effectiveness there.
Los Angeles County officials began studying the procedure in San Diego County and other jurisdictions in June. They found that video arraignments could save local law enforcement agencies thousands of dollars because jail officers would no longer have to transport suspects to courtrooms, stay with the prisoners while they were arraigned, then return them to the jail, officials said.
Video arraignments also greatly reduce the risk of prisoners escaping, as sometimes happens when they are transported to courtrooms, said Jerome Timmons, executive director of the Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee.
But Timmons said the bigger benefits of video arraignment are that the process is much quicker than the current system, allows suspects to be released sooner and does not clog up the court system.
"This is why the judicial system is so bogged down," Supervisor Kenneth Hahn said, referring to the current arraignment process. "The judges and courts have failed to use common sense in using modern technology available to them. It's really a tragedy."
When discussions about video arraignments first began, the state Legislature ruled that the procedure could only be used for misdemeanor suspects. Lawmakers feared at the time that, because of the quickness of video arraignments, suspects in felony cases might not receive adequate defense from the time they were booked until they were arraigned, Timmons said.
Last year the Legislature changed the law to allow for video arraignments of felony suspects but stipulated that all suspects must be told that they can choose to be arraigned in front of a judge, in person, instead of in front of a camera, he said.
'Matter of Convenience'
"There has been a lot of controversy surrounding video arraignments," said Christopher Crawford, Los Angeles County deputy chief of court services. "But it's really a matter of convenience. A suspect always has his or her lawyer present, and basically it gets down to the question of whether you want to be chained, handcuffed, get in a bus and be schlepped down to the courthouse. In most cases, suspects don't want to go through that."
Timothy McFlynn, director of the Public Justice Foundation, a nonprofit public policy advocacy group, said Wednesday that he is strongly opposed to video arraignments.
"I think it's a step in the wrong direction," said McFlynn, who is appealing a Los Angeles Superior Court ruling against increasing the hours during the day that suspects can be arraigned. "The first court appearance is so important that it should not be conducted in a jail setting and definitely not through a television screen."
McFlynn said that several cities in the eastern part of the country have staggered their court hours so suspects can be arraigned at night and on weekends.
"That's the best way to do it because, when a suspect is in person with a judge, things might come out that wouldn't through video," McFlynn said.
Joseph DeVanon, deputy public defender in Glendale, however, supports the plan, "as long as we can maintain quality defense representation," he said.