La Crosse County testing video conferences for court appearances
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La Crosse County testing video conferences for court appearances

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La Crosse County Circuit Court is testing whether court procedures ought to be done via video conference instead of parading shackled inmates into courtrooms.

Judge Ramona Gonzalez introduced the idea and is permitting a “test trial” during her two-week rotation of intake, a court procedure that deals with defendants facing charges every weekday at 1:30 p.m.

“This is just a test trial, no permanent changes at this time,” Gonzalez said, but it is a common process used in several counties, including Vernon and Monroe.

La Crosse County Circuit Judge Ramona Gonzalez

La Crosse County Circuit Judge Ramona Gonzalez

During intake, defense attorneys stand before judges, side-by-side with their clients to argue against the prosecution, while the public — family, friends or spectators — and journalists in the media room watch.

Everyone is in the same place during the new process, except lawyers and their clients, who remain in the jail and appear on video.

Jennifer Lough, a private attorney, said the move doesn’t serve the best interest of her clients.

“From the defense perspective, when we use videoconferencing at the initial stages of a case, our clients are not in the best possible position to participate in the hearing,” Lough said. “Setting bail is a very crucial stage, as it determines whether a person who is presumed innocent will be at home or in custody during the pendency of his or her case. To appear for the hearing from another room through a television screen sets up a situation where there is not only a physical distance from the courtroom, but also an emotional disconnection from the human being who has been told that he or she is accused of a crime and who is very interested in whether he or she will be released from the jail.

“Second, the videoconferencing procedure does not allow the client to see the friends and family who are present in court supporting that person during a horrible moment in his or her life, she said “Further, as an attorney, I believe that it is important to be present in the courtroom, connecting with the individuals in the hearing, so that I can properly and effectively advocate for my client’s interests.”

La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke had no problem with the change, saying it didn’t affect his department.

Video Conference Trial Test

La Crosse County Circuit Court testing if court procedures should be done via video conference instead of having inmates come into courtroom.

La Crosse County Circuit Court

A regular court proceeding, intake, at La Crosse County Circuit Court.

“It has been talked about before, and we have the equipment, but there has not been consensus amongst the judges to do it,” Gruenke said.

“The defense attorneys are not in favor of it because they think they can get more information being in the courtroom (with their clients or defendants),” he added.

La Crosse County Sheriff Jeff Wolf is in favor of the new idea and wants criminal justice experts to give this process careful consideration.

There are sometimes about 20 inmates being moved from the jail up to the courtroom, Wolf said, and if “some type of disturbance occurs, we have minimal staff on hand to deal with the inmates.”

If inmates appear from the jail, Wolf said, “We have additional jail staff present that can deal with disturbances without putting the public or criminal justice professionals in danger.

“It is common practice throughout the state to conduct appearances by video conferencing and it is nice to see that Judge Gonzalez is willing to give the video appearance a try, which takes into account the safety of everyone and the unnecessary exposure of inmates while in court,” he said.

The advantages are still unknown, but the purpose is to “better serve court users in a trauma-informed process while assuring safety for all,” Gonzalez said.

When asked to elaborate, Gonzalez said: “Inmates in court struggling to keep their pants up as they make their intake appearance … vomiting … inmate and audience outbursts and other distractions that undermine the orderly administration of justice in a safe and humane way. But for the grace of God, any of us could be in the shoes of one of our arrested folks. The process should be as safe and humane as possible.”


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