Prison inmates in this province will get a lot more time in front of the camera, beginning next week.
As of Jan. 13, inmates’ appearances in provincial courts across Newfoundland and Labrador by video link — rather than in person — will become the rule of thumb.
“We’re making it so it will become the norm, rather than the exception,” provincial court Chief Judge Mark Pike told The Telegram Thursday.
The news became public this week in direction notes Pike sent to various groups, including the Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Sheriff’s Office.
Video link from correctional institutions — including Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, the Newfoundland and Labrador Correction Centre for Women in Clarenville and the Newfoundland and Labrador Youth Centre in Whitbourne — has been used in St. John’s provincial courtrooms for some time as part of a pilot project launched in November 2010.
It was mainly used for prisoners whose cases were scheduled for such things as status updates, retaining counsel or awaiting disclosure — matters where evidence would not be called.
Inmates, however, could appear in court if their lawyers requested it.
As of Jan. 13, lawyers will have to file an application to have their clients appear in court for non-evidentiary proceedings, Pike said.
However, prisoners could also appear via video link for verdicts, sentencings or hearings in some circumstances, he added.
“There’s going to be a lot more use of it.”
According to the provincial court’s 2012-13 annual report, between March 2012 and March 2013 there were 168 video sessions for in-custody people for non-evidentiary appearances.
Pike suspects the number has skyrocketed since then.
“Every day, there are several video-link appearances in Courtroom No. 5 alone,” he said.
But it’s not just St. John’s that will see video-link appearances. When the project was introduced, equipment was also made available in the other nine provincial court centres across the province — Harbour Grace, Grand Bank, Clarenville, Gander, Grand Falls-Windsor, Corner Brook, Stephenville, Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Labrador City.
Pike said it will now be used routinely in all these centres.
The idea of having inmates stay at the prison was to avoid potential security problems for the accused, staff and public was recommended in the Task Force on Criminal Justice Efficiencies. It was also expected to minimize time delays, which often happens when people are escorted from one venue to another. It also prevents inmates and staff from having to travel long distances in adverse weather conditions.
But fewer in-person court appearances concerns sheriff’s officers, who are responsible for inmate transfers. Many fear video links will eliminate jobs.
“We’re already stretched to the limit as it is,” one sheriff’s officer told The Telegram, asking that their name not be used.
The office suffered several job losses after the April 2013 provincial budget. Concerns about the cuts prompted a review of the Department of Justice. The report has not yet been released.
“That report is not out yet, but already this is being implemented?” the sheriff’s officer said. “It doesn’t bode well for getting any help to alleviate the strain. We feel they’re letting technology replace us, but we really can’t afford to lose anybody else.”
Pike said it’s a sign of the times.
“When they used a horse and carriage years ago, they needed someone to take care of the horse. And when reporters didn’t have computers, they used typewriters,” he said. “I don’t mean to belittle it, but technology is making it more convenient for everybody. And if I can make the system more efficient, I’m all for it.”