Originally created 03/03/05

Inmates have 1st hearing by video



The time it takes to get Columbia County inmates to their first Magistrate Court hearing just got shorter.

Cheaper, too.

On Wednesday, with the aid of computer software and cameras at a one-time cost of $948, such an appearance took just five minutes. Normally it takes at least two hours, officials said.

The new procedure, implemented by Columbia County's Chief Magistrate Judge J. Wade Padgett, got its first test Wednesday, and it was being called a success. It is designed to keep prisoners safely confined in the Columbia County Detention Center in Appling during their hearings rather than having deputies transport them to the Evans Government Center.

"We'll recoup the money in the first month," Sheriff Clay Whittle said, adding that deputies transport prisoners to first hearings three to five times per week. Such trips cost taxpayers $50 to $100, officials say.

With the new system, inmates are taken to a secure area of the jail and seated in front of a computer monitor, where they can see, hear and communicate with magistrate judges.

Authorities say the new procedure should thwart escape attempts such as the April 2002 incident in which inmate Tamika Bumpass overpowered and shot a deputy while being transported.

"We won't have to deal with that anymore, thank goodness," Sheriff Whittle said. "We won't have another call like that because of first appearance hearings. ... We will keep (inmates) here (at the jail) in a secure area and they won't have access to firearms where they can shoot other officers."

Judge Padgett said the new system is initially being used for first-appearance hearings during which inmates who have been denied or cannot make bond are advised of their rights.

"That is only one portion of what we do, but that is a lot of hearings and a lot of jail transportation that we have just eliminated," Judge Padgett said, adding that costs associated with bailiffs and court clerks also should be eliminated.

The system might be expanded to other hearings and other courts. Trials will never be conducted via the closed online video because every accused person has the constitutional right to face witnesses, Judge Padgett said.

"The bottom line is it was a great idea," Sheriff Whittle told Judge Padgett via the Internet connection.

"I commend you for it because it has not only saved us money, but it is helping us on the officer safety issues. ... We can go to fighting crime instead of transporting every day, and that's a great thing."

Reach Valerie Rowell at 868-1222, ext. 110, or valerie.rowell@augustachronicle.com.