The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


February 16, 2014

Tech use could help court skirt 2nd shutdown

— LEWISBURG — Union-Snyder President Judge Michael H. Sholley has no plans to postpone civil and criminal trials again as a result of financial shortfalls.

In October, Sholley pushed back all criminal and civil trials in Snyder County until the beginning of 2014 to save money when he discovered the court had overspent its allotted budget by about $31,000.

The response to Sholley’s decision was immediate, and not positive.

“I do know we won’t be continuing any cases because of the budget,” he said, citing the “overall reaction” to it.

Meanwhile, Sholley said courts in the 17th Judicial District are cutting expenses by using videoconferencing equipment more regularly, treatment court and a inmate diversion pilot program.

Snyder County Sheriff Joe Reigle said his five full-time deputies have been freed up from moving inmates from local jails and state prisons to court hearings by the increasing use of video technology, which allows judges to hold bail revocation hearings and arraignments on a closed-circuit television.

“I try to use it every chance I can. It helps save money, no question about it,” said Reigle, who does not keep track of the amount of hours or money saved.

Last week, he was able to keep two deputies from retrieving defendants in jails in Blair and Lycoming counties for separate brief court hearings in Middleburg.

According to a 2011 survey, Pennsylvania courts conduct about 15,000 hearings each month using videoconferencing and save $21 million a year in prisoner transportation costs.

State Chief Justice Ronald Castille lauds the use of the technology for not only trimming costs, but enhancing security and reducing the risk of inmate escape or assault. He announced this week that he’ll be serving on a eight-member panel, formed by the National Institute of Justice, to develop best practices and guidelines for the use of videoconferencing technology in state and local courts.

Another way the local courts are slashing expenses is with the Day Reporting Center in Union County that has reduced the county jail population by about 30 percent in less than two years.

“We’re down an average of 10 beds a day, for a savings of about $260,000 a year. The Union County commissioners recognize the investment (into the center that offers alternative sentences for low-level offenders) saves money,” said Sholley, who likes having options of a day center, electronic monitoring, counseling and community service when sentencing a defendant.

His view is that while short-term incarceration may have an impact, keeping people behind bars for years usually does nothing more than serve as an expensive warehouse.

“Long-term incarceration,” Sholley said, “has no substantial benefit.”

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