The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

January 7, 2013

Brawl prompts Northumberland County judge to call for video conferencing

By Francis Scarcella
The Daily Item

SUNBURY —  A brawl between state and county inmates that broke loose Friday in the Northumberland County Courthouse could have been much worse and that left President Judge Robert Sacavage looking at an option he has advocated for years — video arraignments.

On Friday, a shackled state prisoner accused of spitting at a Coal Township state prison corrections officer broke free from a Northumberland County deputy and attacked a county inmate inside a holding cell while screaming racial slurs.

Deputies said there was no reason to believe violence was impending and security was complicated by the number of prisoners being held Friday. At one point there were 18 people in detention at the courthouse. The maximum capacity for prisoners at the courthouse is 24.

“It doesn’t have to be that high,” Sacavage said. “With the way technology is today, we can eliminate a lot of this.”

Sacavage said he has been trying to implement a plan that would allow county inmates to remain in jail and be seen by a judge through video technology.

The judge’s plan will also help to reduce costs to municipalities because it would cut the amount of time and money it costs to transport prisoners. Police departments are now responsible for transporting of prisoners after the Northumberland County commissioners decided to stop paying constables for inmate escorts and transportation.

The time prisoners are inside the courthouse could be reduced dramatically because most of them don’t need to attend arraignments anyway, Sacavage said.

“We have so many pre-trial conferences where the individuals do not necessarily have to be in the courtroom,” the judge said. “We do these video arraignments at the district justice level, and we can start to do them here.”

The county already has the capability of using video conferences but there are a few problems, Sacavage said.

“The inmate does have to agree to do it,” he said. “And we need a space at the prison.”

Both are issues because the county jail is already overcrowded with 273 inmates as of Monday. “Finding a space is something that just isn’t there,” Sacavage said. “We need to get a room and have the ability to get all the equipment running together at the same time.”

Sacavage said the county experimented with using the video technology, but it was a problem because of issues at the prison.

“The video was one place, the fax machine was at another. It was just hard,” he said. “We need to find a place and get it set up.”

The second hurdle is getting inmates to agree to video conferences.

“Some of them will have nothing to lose by not agreeing to do it,” Sacavage said. “Some will just want to come to the courthouse, no matter what.”

Sacavage said there are ways to get cooperation from inmates, especially state inmates, who hope to be paroled.

“Many of them are already working on various programs that they need to complete,” he said. “This is something that could be included in part of the agreements made before they are paroled.”

Sacavage said most of the pre-trial conferences for state inmates are already done via video.

As for the incident that happened Friday, Sacavage said he had never experienced anything of that magnitude.

“It really doesn’t happen,” he said. “But with these video conferences we can make that possibility even less.”

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