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Porter County 'court TV' saving time, money

PORTER COUNTY: Judges use video technology to arraign, sentence miles-away jail defendants.

BY JERRY DAVICH This story ran on nwitimes.com on Tuesday, June 27, 2006 1:05 AM CDT

VALPARAISO I Porter County Superior Court Judge David Chidester raised his right hand, looked into the Television screen inside the downtown courthouse and faced the defendant.  He asked, "How do you wish to plead, guilty or not guilty?"  Anthony Ashby raised his right hand, looked back through another television from inside the Porter County Jail, and answered the judge.  "Guilty, your honor. I was impaired. I drank vodka the night before," said Ashby, arrested May 12 in Kouts on charges of drinking and driving.  "I want to get this over with. I want to deal with it."  Chidester sat inside a tiny conference room on the courthouse's third floor, next to deputy prosecutor Melanie Eggers, and court reporter Becky Stowers.  Ashby, sporting an orange jumpsuit, sat in front of a handful of other inmates inside the county jail, located several miles away.  Unlike many Indiana counties, including Lake County, Porter County has for years been conducting court hearings, arraignments and even on-the-spot sentencing using video and audio feeds between the courthouse and jail.  It has proven to be especially economical with the high price of gas, judges say.  Almost daily, judges in the county division courts can handle routine misdemeanor charges, extradition hearings or probation violations through the video system, while more serious felony charges are handled in person.  On this day, Chidester faced eight defendants, each in custody on various charges, from failure to appear, to check forgery. Chidester was direct, yet polite. The defendants were curt and somber. The entire process lasted less than a half hour.  "You could have killed someone that day," Chidester told Ashby, who was charged with similar offenses in 1995, 1994 and 1993.
"I'm definitely not gonna drink no more," Ashby replied through the television.  Chidester then sentenced Ashby to one year in jail, with all but 90 days suspended, suspension of his driver's license for six months, probation for one year, mandatory alcohol treatment meetings twice a week, and payment of $456 for court and probation fees.  Judges say that Mondays are the busiest days for video arraignments, following typically "eventful" weekends, and the days after holidays are even busier.  Soon, every courtroom in the downtown courthouse will be equipped with such video technology, so judges won't have to squeeze into the tiny third-floor conference room.  Instead, they will be able to conduct business directly from their benches, said Chidester, who also regularly travels to the county jail to conduct court hearings. 

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