Butler County courts updating tech amid coronavirus distancing

Last month the Supreme Court of Ohio announced it is offering a one-time grant for local courts to buy equipment to operate remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic. Butler County court officials are taking advantage of the offer.

The supreme court emphasized the importance of keeping some court functions operating, especially to address emergency and time-sensitive matters.

“Indiscriminate closure of the courts with no plan for these issues is not an option,” Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said during a statewide address on March 19.

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About $4 million of the Supreme Court’s budget was allocated for the grant program. The deadline to apply is April 30 and according to the supreme court website, applications are being reviewed as received and awards given “promptly.”

Linda Lovelace, Butler County Area Courts administrator, said the court system’s grant was approved in one day.

While the three area courts have the capability to video arraign defendants from the jail, the system is old and antiquated.

“Our current video arraignment system is on its last leg and really needs an upgrade. We are also applied for the video software piece that will be used for our probation department,” Lovelace said.

Middletown Municipal Court is also preparing a grant application.

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“We are focused on the remote video conferencing applications. We have seen some innovation around the state that we would like to replicate. This technology would allow the court the option to allow any party to appear remotely including the judge, prosecutors, witnesses, defendants,” said Steve Longworth, Middletown court administrator. “Another application that has promise is video interpreting for deaf individuals.”

Hamilton Municipal Court will not apply to the current grant program because administrators there applied for a Supreme Court Technology grant last fall, according to Andra Turpin-Lutz, court technology director.

“We were awarded the technology grant to implement a new digital audio video system in January. We were fortunate to already have applied last year to get this funding and already scheduled the installation,” Turpin-Lutz said.

But the pandemic has delayed the scheduled installation of the $70,000 project until May or June. The court was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Supreme Court.

“Our current audio system is 20-plus years old and failing, so we were really needing to update everything. Other courts in Ohio may just need to add video only. (Hamilton Municipal Court) needed to replace everything while working around an already busy court docket. In hind site I feel this helped us prepare for all the changes with the pandemic because our clerks already scheduling cases out that could be scheduled out. Our court is extremely busy, especially for a single judge,” Turpin-Lutz said.

While upgrades will not happen as quickly as expected, Hamilton Municipal Court Judge Dan Gattermeyer has worked with court and jail officials to video arraign prisoners from the Butler County Jail using a laptop and microphone to keep defendants, attorneys and observers safe from the usually crowded courtroom.

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