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Coronavirus and the Courts: What Changes Will Stay?

Tech experts who work with county court systems have implemented a number of digital changes to help justice continue to function in the time of COVID-19, and some of those changes may become permanent.

County court systems have used technology to conduct business during COVID-19 social distancing, and some of those uses are yielding benefits that may lead to long-term changes, officials estimate.

Over the past three months, COVID-19 social distancing has upended the logistical functions of nearly all aspects of American governance, including court systems. It sounds obvious, but so much of the courts functionality happens through in-person interactions, be it outward-facing functions like arraignments or behind-the-scenes work such as meetings between judges and attorneys. 

While many courts have been set up for sometime to conduct functions remotely on occasion — particularly in instances of proceedings that involve juveniles or other sensitive participants — the rate at which they have utilized technology in this way is minimal. In other words, when the impact of COVID-19 ground life to a halt in March, the vast majority of American courts did not have practices or in some cases the physical technology to go remote, said Rita Reynolds, chief technology officer for the National Association of Counties (NACo).

“When COVID hits, all of a sudden we have to use video,” Reynolds said. “We can’t have people coming to the courthouse. Judges themselves may not even be able to get in.”

In her capacity during the crisis, Reynolds has participated in a discussion group of county IT leaders from across and the country, and as part of that process, conducted a survey that found that roughly 80 percent of the group’s participants are using some sort of video functionality to conduct court business.  

In general, Reynolds has also heard a positive response to this use of video, especially when it pertains to functions outside of the courtroom itself, including probation officers meeting with clients. 

“I can’t say to what degree,” Reynolds said of the increase in technology in the courts, “but I can say that court staff, IT leaders and elected officials are all seeing the benefits.”

Fairfax County, Va., is certainly one jurisdiction that attests to that. 

Gregory Scott is the chief technology officer and director for the IT department there, while Dave Bartee is the court technology officer. They both agreed that Fairfax County has seen benefits to using technology and remote capability to conduct court business. 

The Fairfax County court system is made up of 40 courtrooms that handle circuit court cases, district court cases and juvenile proceedings. Since expanding their physical courts facilities in 2008, Fairfax has worked to build a platform where a strong majority of the courtrooms there have high-tech capabilities. They’ve always done video arraignments for the county jail, just never more than two or three at once, making it easy for them to distribute the physical hardware those proceedings demanded.

As such, in the wake of COVID-19 they’ve been pushed to develop new ways to to allow all of the courts to conduct virtual business simultaneously. They’ve started issuing iPads to staffers who can go directly where inmates are kept to reduce risk of spreading infections. 

“We may have only five or six of our courtrooms out of 40 in operation,” Bartee said, “but our lives are busier than they’ve ever been trying to use technology to support the courts.”

Circuit courts have also been able to do civil functions using conferencing, including issuing marriage licenses, issuing concealed weapons permits and conducting virtual probate activities. Recently, their circuit court even conducted a grand jury via conferencing, joining a list of other jurisdictions that have also done that

The two major court functions that remain elusive via video are bench jury trials — and some jurisdictions elsewhere in the country are even working to use video to do that — and the high-volume courts that handle hundreds of traffic issues per day. Otherwise, it’s been relatively smooth using technology to do business.

“I absolutely think you’re going to see changes in the future and a new way of doing things,” Bartee said. “We’re seeing benefits that may be courtroom-related and non-courtroom-related. There’s a lot of activity that goes on before a case gets into a courtroom, and a lot of that has been handled virtually, and we’re finding it very efficient and very effective.”

In effect, the courts are yet another segment of the public sector that is learning what some companies in the private sector have known for years — it is often easier to conduct business via phone or video chat, than it is to find time to gather a dozen-plus people in the same room. It’s a lesson learned during the crisis, but as those involved point out, it’s also a lesson that can shape the way work is done moving forward.

Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.

Government Technology is Governing's sister e.Republic publication, offering in-depth coverage of IT case studies, emerging technologies and the implications of digital technology on the policies and management of public sector organizations.
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