Expanding use of videoconferencing keeps Douglas County District Court moving forward; some challenges persist

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

The Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, which houses Douglas County District Court and a number of other criminal justice services at 111 E. 11th St., is pictured April 8, 2020.

Although first appearances via video are nothing new for Douglas County District Court, judges attending them from home is.

As essential public meetings have moved to online formats amid the coronavirus pandemic, the court is no exception, and the use of videoconferencing will likely continue to grow in coming weeks, Chief Judge James McCabria said Friday.

However, the court and the local criminal justice system are still facing challenges in connection with COVID-19, including handling atypical cases, considering inmates to be released from the Douglas County Jail and rescheduling a high volume of proceedings.

Zoom hearings

A Kansas Supreme Court order issued March 18, in conjunction with a new state law, limited in-person hearings to essential functions only. McCabria said he’s not aware of any in-person hearings occurring since that order.

Instead, the court has used first appearances in criminal cases — held each weekday afternoon to bring arrestees in the Douglas County Jail before a judge, and considered an essential court function — as an opportunity to familiarize its judges and court reporters with Zoom, a remote conferencing platform, McCabria said.

The jail has used a Polycom system to conduct video appearances since around 2006, according to Deputy Charlie Cooper, public information officer for the sheriff’s office. However, McCabria said that system has very limited access outside of the jail and the courthouse.

“We are very fortunate to have people who have been willing to find new ways to work,” he said. “I suspect that in the next couple of weeks, all of the judges will be making decisions that increase the number of hearings that we’re willing to entertain, even under these limited circumstances.”

For instance, he said he has some hearings set for legal argument in a civil matter, and some judges are considering what hearings they will hold where all attorneys and witnesses will appear by video. Area law enforcement agencies have been responsive to the court’s request to make sure officers have the means to appear via video as witnesses as needed, McCabria said; however, there are no current plans to conduct any jury trials where any witness or party would appear via video.

The court is “open to exploring ways to maximize” public access to videoconference court proceedings, McCabria said. In the meantime, anyone wanting to attend a hearing that is occurring via Zoom should contact the administrative assistant of the division where the case is scheduled. For daily first appearances, that will be the Pro Tem division. All contact information is available at douglascountyks.org/depts/divisions, or call 785-832-5256.

Specialty courts

The lack of in-person hearings has been a challenge for the two specialty courts, behavioral health court and drug court. They target primarily nonviolent offenders with mental illnesses and/or substance use disorders, providing a supportive program to help participants recover and avoid reoffending. If they complete the requirements successfully, their charges are dropped.

The specialty courts largely emphasize coming to hearings — weekly, for those in the early phases of the programs who have the most intensive level of supervision and support, later tapering to monthly — in person. According to weekly statistics provided by the county, the behavioral health court currently has 15 participants; the fledgling drug court has two.

Judge Sally Pokorny, who presides over the behavioral health court, said the BHC team has been meeting weekly by Zoom to review participants’ progress and setbacks. They’ve also been engaging in teletherapy and Zoom meetings with providers, and case managers are getting food and medicine for those who have limited transportation options.

Next Thursday, she said, nine participants will meet with the BHC team via Zoom. Three will appear from Bert Nash’s meeting room that is set up for videoconferencing, but they’ll appear one at a time to ensure social distancing and a clean room as each one leaves, she said.

“This has been challenging. We are working hard to prevent the participants from disengaging,” she said via email. “… It shows the importance of having them engage frequently in the court process in addition to engaging in programs.”

Drug court, a pilot program that just began taking referrals in January, has had to declare a moratorium on new participants for now, Judge Kay Huff said. Those already in the program continue to meet with probation officers by phone weekly and go to therapy online or by video or phone, she said, though some have more technological options available than others.

“So far, the participants are doing well and are meeting objectives,” she said via email Thursday. “They had found jobs and have reconnected with family members. They have expressed gratitude that this option is available to them in this time of stress. We are grateful to the county for providing these resources.”

Reviewing inmates for release

As the Journal-World has reported, the Douglas County district attorney’s office has been working with defense attorneys for those in custody at the jail to determine which inmates could be candidates for release.

The close quarters of jails make it difficult to prevent the spread of illness. As the Associated Press has reported, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas has filed a lawsuit on behalf of inmates at state correctional facilities seeking expedited hearings due to preexisting medical conditions that increase their vulnerability to the virus, as the number of cases at one of them, Lansing, jumped from three to at least 26 in the span of about a week.

But the ultimate decisions on whether to release certain inmates are the court’s to make. McCabria said the judges are not taking them lightly.

“Tough decisions are being made as carefully and as thoughtfully as they can be, and we can’t promise perfection,” he said. “We can only promise that we’re being very careful and considerate of all of the circumstances for every decision that gets made.”

He said there is merit to both viewpoints of those who praise the release of inmates in order to protect their health, as well as those who fear for safety of the community. With local efforts to explore alternatives to incarceration, the judges are used to balancing safety risks to the community versus having people in custody pretrial, he said.

“Now we’re just doing that in a new context, but we’re still doing that same analysis,” he said, noting that the court already has tools for pretrial monitoring of defendants. “… We are not reacting in a panicked way. We are reacting based on the best evidence that’s available to us.”

Dealing with delays

Asked how the court can eventually work through the matters that can’t be completed via videoconference and must be delayed, McCabria acknowledged that Douglas County is the second or third busiest district in the state by caseload per judge, “and because of that, we have tried to do as much as we can to keep cases flowing.”

But it is a high-volume district, he said, so conducting hearings via phone and video when possible is helping. Judges still have access to documents that are filed electronically, and they can review and approve those that don’t require further hearing, he said.

Some people who have received summonses to appear in court have already been issued new ones with dates in May or later, and those cases may still be continued, though McCabria said he’s hopeful that they won’t have to be. And for now, the judges — mostly working from home — are evaluating requests on a case-by-case basis.

“Obviously this is extending out longer than we had hoped when we were all first analyzing this back in mid-March, so I can’t say with certainty what that exact volume will be,” he said, referring to when normal operations resume. “I can say with certainty that I have every confidence that our judges and our court staff will find a way to be as efficient and as thorough in our handling of that volume as possible.”

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