Court Appearances in Criminal Proceedings Through Telepresence

Identifying Research and Practice Needs to Preserve Fairness While Leveraging New Technology

by Camille Gourdet, Amanda R. Witwer, Lynn Langton, Duren Banks, Michael G. Planty, Dulani Woods, Brian A. Jackson

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Research Questions

  1. What challenges do courts face in terms of leveraging new technologies, such as telepresence, and how can these challenges be addressed?
  2. What are the high-priority needs associated with using telepresence in the court room?

Local jurisdictions, faced with caseloads of increasing complexity and cost, have adopted alternative approaches to criminal case processing — including the use of new technologies — that have the potential to reduce backlog and improve judicial efficiency. Telepresence technology, which allows an individual or group of individuals to appear in a court proceeding from a remote location, is one example of such a technology. On behalf of the National Institute of Justice, RTI International and the RAND Corporation convened the Court Appearances Through Telepresence Advisory Workshop in November 2018 as part of the Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative. The telepresence workshop was designed to explore the potential benefits and burdens of telepresence technology and identify innovative solutions for addressing concerns regarding the use of these technologies for criminal court appearances. Participants acknowledged the potential benefits of telepresence technology in expediting pretrial and trial case processing; providing cost savings; and expanding the ability of victims, witnesses, language interpreters, and other individuals to participate. However, the panel members also discussed the potential disadvantages of telepresence technology, which can result in a violation of the defendant's constitutional rights or increase the risk of an unfavorable outcome. Participants also expressed the need for detailed technical standards and stakeholder-specific trainings that ensure the proper setup and high-quality multipurpose use of telepresence technology in court. Given the complexity of the issues involved, the participants emphasized the need to enable state and local courts to handle data collection and storage in a manner that preserves the trial record.

Key Findings

Advantages of videoconferencing in a legal setting include increased safety for court personnel, reductions in costs, and enhanced court efficiency

  • Telepresence eliminates the need to transport defendants and offenders, reducing expenditures and potential threats to safety.
  • Eliminating the need to transport and secure defendants could expedite pretrial proceedings, increasing efficiency and reducing time spent in jail prior to court dates.
  • Telepresence technology could increase access to the legal system for expert witnesses, victims, and other stakeholders who live in remote locations or who fear for their safety in court.
  • Telepresence technologies can facilitate the provision of language interpretation services, allowing non-English speakers and individuals with disabilities to access the criminal justice system more easily.
  • Telepresence technology enables victims to testify without experiencing the trauma of being physically present with their offender.

Concerns remain regarding the potential impact of telepresence technology on constitutional rights, the behavior of court actors, and perceptions of credibility

  • Videoconferencing might influence the judgment and behavior of individuals who appear in court remotely. Defendants and witnesses who are not present might not fully appreciate the gravity of the proceeding, increasing the risk that they engage in impulsive behavior or that they become disengaged from the legal process.
  • Videoconferencing could affect assessments of demeanor and nonverbal cues in ways that reduce the speaker's perceived credibility.
  • Telepresence might have an appreciable negative impact on the outcomes of cases in which it is used: It might inadvertently encourage harsher responses on the part of the court.
  • Telepresence technologies are far from infallible. A poor connection raises concerns for the constitutional rights of court parties, while technical issues could delay or disrupt court proceedings.
  • Telepresence might affect the attorney-client relationship by threatening their ability to carry out private communications.

Recommendations

  • Research should be conducted on options for improving network connectivity and on best practices and minimum standards for audio setup.
  • Research should be conducted to assess the impact of telepresence technology on the experiences of witnesses and victims.
  • Technical issues that influence the effectiveness of telepresence technology should be identified, and national standards for the setup of telepresence systems should be developed.
  • A training curriculum for each of the different court actors who interact with telepresence technology in some capacity should be developed.
  • Model configurations that can be used to help purchasers make intelligent buying decisions should be developed.
  • Research is needed to better understand the effect of telepresence technology on defendants' experiences with the court process and perceptions of procedural justice.
  • Research should be conducted into the appropriate levels of video quality and image size, and implementation standards for courts should be developed.
  • Research is needed to determine whether there is a difference in cross-examinations that occur in person versus via telepresence technology.
  • Pilot courtrooms (e.g., laboratories) should be created where court staff can try new technologies and get more comfortable with them.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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