The York City courtroom was empty, but District Judge Ronald Haskell Jr. sat at his desk next to a large pile of manila folders waiting for the first prisoner to appear before him.
As the clock ticked to 9:15 a.m. sharp, he turned to his computer screen where the first of nine prisoners was seen sitting in a room with a correctional officer watching. Haskell pulled the correct docket and began the hearing.
Video conferencing technology could save York County taxpayers more than $200,000 in prisoner transportation costs this year.
Those savings are projected to total $21 million for the state, according to a survey released by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
York County was one of four counties in the state to begin using video conferencing
technology in the late '90s, Court Administrator Robert Chuk said. A state grant was obtained to put the equipment in the courtroom, which judges welcomed, Chuk said.
The Common Pleas courts are wired to accommodate video machines, which predate the current laptop system. Those courtrooms still use the video machines, while district judges use laptops.
Heavily used: While some judicial districts across the county rarely use the system, such as Tioga and Cameron/Elk, Chuk said he believes York County uses the technology as much as possible.
In York County, the video conferencing technology is largely used for prisoners already in jail or central booking, Chuk said.
The survey was based on video conferencing in March, with cost savings multiplied to reflect the entire year.
The cost savings come from eliminating the need to transport prisoners to and from the hearing.
In March, York County reported saving $17,545 it otherwise would have needed to transport 605 prisoners at $29 a ride, according to the report, conducted by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Court's Office of Judicial Security.
Chuk said savings would increase if video conferencing was used to avoid transportation to and from state prisons more often. Internet service provider (ISP) address connection issues have complicated those video conferences, but Chuk said they will be used when possible.
In addition to the transportation savings, keeping a prisoner in central booking or the prison eliminates any safety compromises, Chuk said.
High numbers: Compared to like-size judicial districts, York County performed the most video conferences in March. Transport costs vary by district; York ranked third among like-sized judicial districts in money saved.
Of the state's 60 judicial districts, 55 participated in the survey. Among all 55, York County ranked fourth in the number of video conferences done.
Of the more than 15,700 monthly court proceedings done with the video conferencing across the state, about 9,500 were preliminary arraignments, which is the process of submitting a plea to a judge. Others included warrant proceedings, bail and sentencing hearings.
Haskell, also the president of the county's District Judge Association, said the county has 19 laptops to allow district judges to perform video arraignments or other court procedures.
"When it first started many years ago, it was clear within a month it was a savings because we had so many less transports," he said. "During the week, I'll use it three to seven times."
-- Reach Amanda Dolasinski at 505-5437 or email@example.com.