How technology can transform court proceedings, appearances and jury duty
The shift to video arraignments foretells how things might be done differently in the future
This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.
The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.
By Commander Brad Welch
Most U.S. courts and their supporting law enforcement agencies have been underfunded and understaffed for some time. Being innovative and forward-thinking and taking risks can often be too burdensome when facing an unrelenting workload, even if those risks may carry significant future rewards. Yet as expert risk managers, we know that when forced with change, “the most significant risk would be to stay stagnant and do nothing at all.” 
When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, courts came to a screeching halt. Pivoting to remote hearings for attorneys, defendants and witnesses was required to move forward. While it was initially chaotic and stressful in most jails and courthouses, hybrid or remote courts became the new normal. With that momentum, it is time for courts and criminal justice leaders to move even further forward technologically in the post-pandemic world. One significant step would be to look at artificial intelligence (AI) for civil and traffic matters, holographic court appearances from jail modules and virtual jury duty to create overall “smart courts.”
How the courts changed with COVID-19
In 2019 in-person meetings were common in most professions. Even with the advances in computers and technology, workers solely using online meetings on platforms such as Skype and Zoom were rare. According to a recent study from Zippia, only 6% of the workforce was working remotely before the pandemic.  The criminal justice system was no different, as law enforcement, legal professionals and defendants appeared in person for court appearances.
As the pandemic appeared and spread in March 2020, states were forced to suspend most in-person hearings for criminal matters, leaving mandatory hearings such as arraignments up in the air. Civil cases were either postponed indefinitely or moved to an online platform. 
Due to their congregate housing, county jails and state prisons repeatedly experienced pandemic outbreaks that reduced or stopped all inmate movement.  Custody leadership, therefore, had to revamp how it maintained facility safety while also honoring constitutionally protected court appearances.
While professionals in the criminal justice system looked for potential solutions, case backlogs increased, and clearance rates began dropping. In 2018 California courts adjudicated an average of 86% of their cases – that dropped to 73% in the first few months of the pandemic.  In California, this would equate to about 123,000 criminals not sentenced and potentially back out on the streets.  Backlogged criminal and civil court cases caused massive public frustration, compounded in 2021 by a report from the state judicial branch’s administration that showed 1.4 million fewer cases were resolved a year after the pandemic.  Even getting inmates to court hearings became a logistical nightmare. Something had to change, and fast.
Interactive technologies show promise
In Santa Barbara, California, the county jail revived retired “court video” rooms that had not been used in years. Other attorney/client visitation booths were set up with temporary Zoom cameras and workstations. Jail staff successfully hosted thousands of virtual court arraignments and began using Zoom for preliminary hearings and other, more complex court proceedings.
With these successes in Santa Barbara and elsewhere, California opened more remote appearance opportunities to the civil court system.  One example of the success of this new approach was seen in a Santa Barbara law firm that “conducted Zoom family law hearings every week and conducted over 15 multiple-day family law trials” during the pandemic. 
These successes using interactive technologies prompted renewed interest from court staff to identify other new, efficient systems that could be used. Our court system before the pandemic was antiquated, making it frustrating for all involved. Legal technology expert Richard Susskind recently said, “The process is unintelligible to anyone other than lawyers, and it is very combative. The process also doesn’t scale well and somehow seems out of step in a digital society.”  With the success of online platforms doing the same work, there is an opportunity today to consider the further addition of emerging technologies to resolve issues that were once the norm.
A hybrid model emerges
As California moved out of lockdowns and the social distancing portion of the pandemic, a hybrid court model emerged in which in-custody defendants and attorneys could attend their arraignments and other hearings either remotely or in person. This way of conducting court business became the new normal and was accepted by almost all parties throughout the state. 
This acceptance suggests the court process can be further revolutionized by other technologies. One that can reduce costs, simplify the appearance process and reduce danger for all involved is holoportal systems such as PORTL’s Hologram in a Box (HIAB) and ARHT’s CAPSULE. [12,13] These portable, plug-and-play cabinet-based systems have holographic receivers that can project the likeness of anyone sitting or standing in them to anywhere in the world with a corresponding device. Inmates appear in court in a full-size, lifelike three-dimensional form and interact with their attorney, the judge and others from a box installed right in their jail housing module.
The infrastructure jails had in place before COVID-19 is sufficient to connect to HIAB or CAPSULE devices. With this technology, the need to transport inmates to court would be eliminated, and the millions spent doing so could be reallocated. Likewise, once holographic technology is established and successful, we can look even more deeply into other technology for our courts, including AI.
In addition to eliminating court transports, positions for court personnel, deputy bailiffs and other stakeholders could be reallocated or held vacant for salary savings. This could be done by removing these cases from our traditional court systems and hosting them online using an AI judge and/or online dispute resolution (ODR) system similar to those used successfully in Europe and Canada. These systems, such as British Columbia’s Smartsettle ONE, use algorithms and machine learning to analyze uploaded briefs and documents from the two parties to render a decision.  Using these technologies, we could move through an entire courtroom calendar in a matter of minutes.
To round out our smart courts, we could move criminal juries to remote settings, which would be beyond just a convenience for our citizens. We have seen individual remote trial successes in California.
While some may say remote trials may hinder juries’ interactions, questions and ability to get each other’s reactions and perspectives, it may also do the opposite and eliminate groupthink in juries. Similarly, juror hardships and inability to serve are a crisis for our courts. By providing jurors with viewing devices such as Oculus glasses or tablets after their selection, we would allow them to conduct jury duty anywhere at any time. This could eliminate many hardships, increasing the potential jury pool immensely.
“If it is predictable, then it’s preventable,” as one prominent law enforcement leader has said.  For law enforcement managers and executives, that notion of risk management is ingrained. According to a 2021 study from the Center of Global Development, there is a 47%–57% chance of another global pandemic as deadly as COVID-19 in the next 25 years.  We not only have to be ready for that type of obstruction to our court processes but also potential cyberattacks, long-term catastrophes and civil unrest. Transitioning now to “smart courts” could prevent us from being caught flat-footed again.
This shift in technology for courtrooms will have some roadblocks. Depending on the political setting and staffing levels that may be endangered by a remote court process, agencies will get pushback from a variety of stakeholders. They will need buy-in from their custody transportation units, public defenders’ offices, district attorneys, state court personnel, state authorities and all associated unions. As Neil Gowing, president of the Santa Barbara County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, said, “As we progress through the 21st century, we as a union know that technology is improving. However, there is no software or machine that can replace the ability or judgment of a physical person.”  Changing this mindset may not happen overnight, but ignoring it could doom any considered advance to failure.
Legal issues, such as a defendant’s right to appear for their arraignment, must also be explored. If holographic appearances were possible, does a hologram version of a defendant satisfy their right to confront their accuser in court? AI judges for civil matters may work in other countries, but does an AI judge satisfy the requirements of a judicial official per state law? While that answer may be forthcoming, courts throughout the United States have already begun to incorporate AI into the courtroom to handle pretrial and post-trial hearings such as bail, parole and sentencing. 
It is easy to say we must change how our courts do business. However, to effect change, we need to begin educating both executive and court staff on how we could revolutionize our operations if we implemented this technology. Technology can be a challenge for some of the more old-school executives, and funding is scarce. Even with massive vacancies and issues in recruiting and retention, leaning on technology to fill that vacuum could be an uphill battle.
As leaders, we need to show our line staff, supervisors and executives that the technological advances we want to utilize in courts are already here and available. Part of buy-in is identifying that the desired outcome is attainable. Several law enforcement agencies, including a significant number in California, are currently capitalizing on such advances. Considering the shift to video arraignments and their subsequent success in our counties, we will join them in transforming how civil and criminal proceedings are conducted in California counties by 2029.
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13. Introducing Capsule. ARHT.
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17. Personal communication. Neil Gowing. November 27, 2022.
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About the author
Commander Brad Welch began his career with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office (California) in 1999. He has worked multiple assignments throughout his 23-year career including corrections officer, dispatch, patrol, field training officer, mobile field force, narcotics investigator, patrol sergeant, professional standards sergeant, patrol bureau lieutenant, court services and civil lieutenant, contract services lieutenant and commander of a patrol division.
Commander Welch has a master’s degree in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership from the University of San Diego. He is a graduate of the California POST Command College Class #69. Commander Welch is an associate instructor for Ventura College and has lectured at several state and local conferences.