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Justice system ‘more accessible, visible and accountable’ because of video technology used during COVID | COMMENTARY

In this screen grab from video provided by the Travis County Commissioners Court, Judge Nicholas Chu confers with defense attorneys and prosecutors during a Texas jury trial being conducted over Zoom last year. The proceeding was among the nation's first virtual jury trials in a criminal case. It was broadcast live on YouTube. (Travis County Commissioners Court via AP)
In this screen grab from video provided by the Travis County Commissioners Court, Judge Nicholas Chu confers with defense attorneys and prosecutors during a Texas jury trial being conducted over Zoom last year. The proceeding was among the nation's first virtual jury trials in a criminal case. It was broadcast live on YouTube. (Travis County Commissioners Court via AP) (AP)

The pandemic has caused death, disruption and dysfunction across the country. But it has also shed important light on systemic disparities in our health systems, demonstrated how less frequent automobile use can reduce carbon emissions and forced many of us to rethink our relationship with technology.

Teachers, doctors, and even courtroom judges have had to up their online game to reach those they serve. To be sure, there continue to be many challenges in ensuring that everyone has access to computers, quiet places to connect and reliable Wi-Fi access. However, in many ways our justice system has become more accessible, visible and accountable because of video technology.

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On any given day this week, local court dockets will be livestreamed to allow involvement from a distance. This permits persons who have health concerns to stay home to protect themselves and others, court staff without child care to tend to their children and individuals with transportation issues to attend hearings. These unplanned benefits of our new normal should continue even as courthouses reopen.

Similarly, members of the press can enter far-flung courthouses from their offices without traveling many miles to cover important proceedings. And the everyday person — including high school students — can watch local arraignment shifts without leaving home, to better understand how a case moves through the system. This helps all of us to become more informed and knowledgeable about current events and matters in our courts. And of course, all these added eyes and ears help to hold our systems of justice more accountable. For instance, virtual access to bail hearings during the pandemic has allowed one grassroots group, Prince George’s County Court Watchers, to monitor the courts and identify a range of justice issues worthy of further attention. And their important observations relate not only to adult defendants, but youth.

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By way of example, in one troubling case a teen’s grandmother and guardian addressed the court at a mid-December initial bail hearing, explaining the child’s mental health needs and that he was taking several medications. Despite his health conditions and young age, apparently the defendant was detained without bail until mid-February, even though his charges were dismissed in January. Because they were virtually present to monitor these proceedings, Prince George’s County Court Watchers were able to take on the cause of this youth, writing to the court to urge an investigation relating to his detention on seemingly baseless claims in the middle of a pandemic.

Their observations have supported other “accountability letters” to the courts too, to urge attention for disabled persons in custody, question recommendations of prosecutors that appear unsupported, and otherwise demand that accused persons who are without loved ones present in court are treated with fairness, dignity and respect.

When we look at police brutality, particularly against Black and brown bodies, cameras are the tools that have shined the most light on these injustices nationally. In the same way law enforcement officers are now expected to have their body cameras turned on to ensure their interactions with civilians are proper and just, we must ensure the same takes place in the courtrooms. We should do all we can to make sure that courts in Maryland and beyond allow remote court access to continue even after COVID is behind us. This is not to say the rights of criminal defendants should give way to singularly remote proceedings. That is a different issue entirely, with different constitutional dimensions. Instead, since we now know what is possible with live video court proceedings, those who wish to stand with the accused should be able do so without unnecessary impediments, to help make sure they are being treated fairly in our courts.

Asha Burwell and Mae C. Quinn (mae.quinn@udc.edu) work together in the Youth Justice Clinic at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, where Professor Quinn serves as director and Ms. Burwell is a law student advocate. This op-ed reflects the opinions of the authors and not the school of law.

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