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Courts across the country are embracing videoconferencing as a way for defendants to appear before a judge without leaving prison or jail, according to a recent survey by the National Center for State Courts.

As state and local governments continue to see their budgets squeezed, they are increasingly looking for ways to save money through technology, says Kannan Sreedhar, managing director of Verizon Connected Healthcare Solutions. When his company demonstrated its Telejustice products at a meeting of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials in Houston in August, he says, he was stunned by the level of interest.

"We were inundated with people who wanted to talk to us," Sreedhar says.

Sreedhar says the newer technology is based on Internet protocols offering higher resolution than previous generations, and it's easier to operate.

The newest wave: mobile video units that can be used in hospital rooms, mental health facilities and other venues to arraign people too sick to appear in court.

"We had a situation where we thought a prisoner had a communicable disease," says Sgt. Jason Gibson, of the Eastpointe Police Department outside Detroit. "We were able to arraign her from our lockup and didn't have to expose everyone in the court to that."

Gibson's department used a federal grant to buy a $15,000 mobile unit this summer. It stands on a cart with a monitor and a camera so the defendant and the judge can see one another. It plugs into a standard electrical outlet and connects over the Internet via cellular air card.

When the National Center for State Courts surveyed court systems in September, 100 of the 162 that responded were already using videoconferencing for some criminal matters, according to the study results published on the center's website.

Pennsylvania estimates it has saved $31 million, and Utah courts have reduced their transportation costs by one-third, according to the survey.The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services began using videoconferencing earlier this year for inmates who appeal grievance hearings to a circuit court.

"We really think it's going to be a tremendous public-safety improvement and considerable cost savings," says spokesman Mark Vernarelli.

The criminal-justice section of the American Bar Association hasn't taken a formal position on videoconferencing for hearings such as arraignments but discourages it in trials, says spokeswoman Stephanie Ortbals-Tibbs.

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