WILKES-BARRE – Just a shade over four years ago, Luzerne County started using a high-tech videoconference system for some of its court hearings.
The plan, officials said then, was to spend less money hauling around inmates and putting them up in the county jail before court.
Has it worked?
Sure did, they say.
In 50 months of use, the system has saved Luzerne County more than $1.7 million, according to Bill Ostroskie, a management information analyst for the county.
And last year, the system hit its all-time high, saving an estimated $610,000 in county funds for 2006 alone.
“It’s been more than successful,” Deputy Court Administrator Jack Mulroy said.
The system was set up in late 2002.
It uses cameras and televisions set up in courtrooms and prisons across the state to conduct certain hearings.
That prevents deputy sheriffs from transporting inmates from those prisons. It also keeps more inmates out of the already-crowded county prison.
Ostroskie said the system is used for a number of court proceedings, including preliminary hearings, arraignments, bail hearings, and others.
Last year, 1,874 hearings were done via videoconference at the main courthouse alone, he said.
The system saved the sheriff’s department nearly $270,000 and the Luzerne County Correctional Facility more than $332,000 in 2006.
Ostroskie said the system’s savings were so high in 2006 because of the amount of cases and because more judges are using the system.
Sheriff Barry Stankus and prison Warden Gene Fischi have seen the benefits.
No, they aren’t lugging suitcases of excess cash back to the commissioners.
The benefits, they say, are in savings.
The more the video system is used, the fewer expenses they have, they say.
“If we didn’t have videoconferencing, I would have to hire more deputies and purchase more vehicles,” Stankus said.
When the system was implemented in 2002, it helped expedite cases so much Fischi was able to return more than 70 Luzerne County prisoners that were being housed elsewhere, he said. The county has to pay to house inmates at other prisons.
Sometimes, defendants are arrested on an outstanding warrant and housed at the prison. Before videoconferencing, those defendants would be held at the county prison for three weeks until they saw a judge.
Now, that can be done within a week of being arrested, Fischi said.
“Without it, I don’t know what I’d be doing,” the warden said.
Ostroskie said the county has videoconference systems set up in central court, the main courthouse, the Bernard C. Brominski annex, and the Penn Place annex, including one in the public defender’s office for attorneys to meet with their clients without going to the prison.
The system saves the county an average of about $35,000 per month, while the costs are minimal.
Each system costs about $15,000, Ostroskie said. And in 2006, the county paid about $5,240 for the phone calls used to transmit the signals.
Mulroy said he has a few more ideas for expanding the system. Those plans are on hold for now, until the ideas are discussed further.
“We’re always looking to see if there are new ways to use it,” he said.
The following is a breakdown of the money Luzerne County estimates it has saved over the years using a videoconference system for some court hearings:
• 2002: $10,144
• 2003: $358,909
• 2004: $325,236
• 2005: $445,632
• 2006: $610,381