by Ed Lyon
Television crime dramas really do reflect reality when they show that one of the first things that occurs in an arrestee’s life is an arraignment. It is at this proceeding a judge hears whatever evidence the government’s and arrestee’s attorneys present, along with their arguments for a high or low bail amount. This is an extremely important part of the criminal justice proceeding, as statistics reflect a much higher conviction rate for pretrial detainees than arrestees who are able to bond out of jail pending their trials.
Video arraignments are believed to have originated in 1972 Illinois. Chicago began using video arraignments in 1999. More than half of the states were utilizing some kind of video hearings by 2007. By 2009, 57 percent of pretrial services were using video arraignments similar to the one Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, currently utilizes.
Presumably, with increasing numbers of crime and arrests, video arraignments ease the logistics associated with transporting large numbers of arrestees from jail, to court, and back to jail.
Video arraignments also help ease security concerns, along with their convenience. Using low quality systems, most likely those provided by a low-bid vendor, the resulting feed is usually so poor “the video ... made the person on the video screen seem like not a real person,” according to law professor Locke E. Bowman, who teaches at Northwestern University.
For centuries, military forces have been taught to dehumanize an enemy nation’s soldiers in their minds to more easily psyche themselves up for battle, to inflict harm and death. A video feed to an arraignment judge of a defendant who resembles a cartoon character more than a real person provides an implicit psychological platform for the judge to abandon any empathy he or she might otherwise exhibit toward an arrestee regardless of evidence or a lack thereof.
Philadelphia arrestee Dante (last name withheld by request) was seated before a video screen. Because of the video arrangement, he had not met with a defense attorney and had to fend for himself, not that it did him any good. He was a mere spectator to the process, saying, “They just relate to you what the police officer said and ... you don’t have a chance to defend yourself, you really don’t have anyone there to help you defend yourself. Without even looking at the evidence, [the judge] just came up with a number. You don’t have any say. It’s more like a judgment than it is a chance to participate in your own defense.” The number chosen by the judge required Dante to raise a $10,000 surety bond in order to make bail.
Bail amounts have increased by 51 percent, averaging $21,000 since the inception of video arraignments, according to a 2010 study Bowman conducted. There is no way to measure the harm that countless defendants have suffered by the wholesale deprivation of legal assistance at video arraignments.
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