Justice court tests video arraignments

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 9, 2010

NATCHEZ — Justice Court Judge Charlie Vess peered at Jessie Penton while giving the prisoner a bond reduction, but Penton wasn’t in shackles.

This is because Vess was looking at Penton through a monitor of a newly purchased videoconference system that connects the county jail to the justice court through a phone line, and the prisoner never left the county jail.

Now Penton could be leaving the jail for the first time since February, after being arrested on an alleged sexual battery charge, if his family posts the $5,000 bond, which was reduced from $100,000.

Since Penton has been incarcerated, the victim, who is now living in Biloxi, has not responded to repeated attempts by the state to contact her.

After a trial run Friday afternoon, Tuesday’s video arraignments were the first on the court’s docket.

Adams County Sheriff Chuck Mayfield started pursuing the possibility of setting up a video arraignment system in late April and got permission from the Adams County Board of Supervisors in May to have a trial run, which started Friday.

If the test run goes well, Mayfield said it would cost $1,500 for the videoconference system and $500 for the TV that is now in justice court.

Mayfield said the sheriff’s office had the money for the equipment, so it would not cost the taxpayers. The sheriff’s office makes a profit off the prisoners from commissary, which is funding made off of prisoners from sales of food and personal items.

Vess said overall he was impressed with the system and thought it could offer some benefits, such as recording the arraignments.

“A guy could say that I said he could burn in hell when I set his bond high,” Vess said. “If the state investigates his claim, then I have to go through long process, but if it is taped then I have a backup.”

Vess was also happy to have fewer bodies in the justice court room.

“The court’s space is limited, especially on civil case day because you can have 15 to 30 people in and out,” Vess said. “If you bring the prisoners in their orange and white jumpsuits over I have no space for them, or I have to kick people out.”

The sheriff’s office brings over prisoners for arraignment every day, and they typically take up the whole front portion of the two rows of seats in the courtroom, Vess said.

Mayfield said keeping the prisoners in the county jail is a security feature for everyone and also saves on manpower hours.

“This eliminates having to parade them across the street to justice court, where they could be attacked,” Mayfield said. “It can also tie up three to four deputies and a jailer.”

Vess said it will play a role in courtroom security.

“There have been instances where fights have broken out,” Vess said. “In a serious drug case, the prisoner might start a fight with the deputy. Or if I set a bond at $200,000, they might say ‘F’ you and come at me.”

Mayfield said after the equipment was purchased, the next step was to pursue a method to deliver the video service to the attorneys.

“It is a lot easier to sit in the office and talk to clients where they have law books and files handy,” Mayfield said. “It also provides them with some security, as they have to report to the inmate when a case is not looking good, and the inmate could become agitated.”

Vess said certain arraignments would still come before him face-to-face, but he was looking forward to continuing to use the system.