AIKEN - Aiken County's judicial system may not be as wired as judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials would like, but its capabilities will soon be increased nearly tenfold, thanks to Big Tobacco.
Using a portion of the $1.4 million in tobacco settlement funds distributed to Aiken County by the South Carolina Department of Commerce, county officials are putting in place a high-speed fiber optic connection that will link the county jail, the courthouse, the sheriff's office and county offices. The connections should be completed sometime in July, according to Johnny Walton, the director of information technology for Aiken County.
In the long run, Mr. Walton said, judges should be able to hold bond hearings by teleconference with the jail - a practice now common in many metropolitan cities - and pull up original incident reports and other documents from the sheriff's office on their computer monitors at the bench.
"It's not going to happen tomorrow, but it will happen sooner rather than later," Mr. Walton said. "This lays the foundation."
The new pipeline increases speed from 1.5 megabits per second to as much as 1,000 megabits per second at each of the four locations, Mr. Walton said. That kind of improvement in bandwidth dramatically increases the capabilities of the county's computer systems, he said.
South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal has made a statewide upgrade of the judicial system's computers a top agenda item. Pilot programs in Greenville and Anderson counties are already linked into a statewide system.
Rodger Edmonds, the chief magistrate judge for Aiken County, says that although the county's 10 magistrates can now communicate via computer, they have no reliable method of checking for outstanding warrants or criminal convictions for defendants who appear before them.
"We'd love to have that information," Judge Edmonds said. "Sometimes we have to ask the defendants if it's their first charge."
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A new fiber optic network will, in time, allow judges to call up police documents on their computers.