Three ways COVID-19 makes the criminal courts better

Brandon Birmingham
The Honorable Brandon Birmingham presides over the 292nd District Court.

 

 

By BRANDON BIRMINGHAM

Dallas County Criminal Court District

 

The rules in place to help end the COVID-19 pandemic have had profound impacts on our lives. We’ve learned new words and phrases like “shelter-in-place” and “social distancing.” Businesses are closed causing many to lose their jobs. Restaurants are fighting for survival selling take-out, and retail shops are drying up. While the extent of the exact damage is nearly impossible to predict, we are surrounded by constant reminders that our economy is in significant distress.

It’s not just the necessities, either. There’s the life experiences we’ll miss. We had to cancel my son’s 10th birthday party with his friends. High school seniors won’t be making lifelong memories at graduation or prom. If you’re like me, Sunday family dinners are now meals we share on FaceTime.

I’ll say something now I never thought I’d say: professional sports have been canceled, too. Looks like we’ll all miss seeing Luka lead the Mavs to the first of at least a dozen NBA titles.

In the meantime, we are taking some significant steps toward modernizing the aging infrastructure of the criminal justice system here in Dallas County. You deserve to know what’s happening in your courthouse, so I write today to bring you up to speed on some of the changes we are working on and the legacy they will leave.

Hearings like plea bargains and bond reviews must now be accomplished remotely so that all necessary parties – the prosecutor, the defense, the judge, the court reporter, the clerk, and the citizen accused – can be present, be heard, and be safe. The solution? Video conferencing. Courts are using video platforms like Microsoft Teams or Zoom, and all parties are calling in. Incarcerated individuals are brought into the calls in one of two ways: through computers and cameras set up in certain areas within the jail or in some of the empty courtrooms. Courtrooms today consist of home offices, garages, kitchens and dining room tables. We are also using Adobe Sign to validate and authenticate virtual signatures.

Our Constitution demands that proceedings in courtrooms like mine be accessible to the public. The problem is that our courthouse is not open. The solution? Programs like Teams and Zoom broadcast the proceedings on YouTube for anybody to view. You’ll find the YouTube channels for all courts at the Texas Judicial Branch homepage: txcourts.gov. They span the entire State.

I am very hopeful that these solutions become permanent, outlasting this pandemic for 3 reasons: systemic transparency, democratic accountability and economic efficiency.

I encourage you to peruse these court’s YouTube channels and see for yourself how things are done across Texas. Would you like to see what’s happening in a divorce court in Houston? Watch an oral argument in an appeals court in Austin? Watch a trial in Palo Pinto County? By viewing these courts, you can get an idea for how the system actually operates on a daily basis in real-time, unfiltered.

Perhaps you, the voter, would like to see how some of the people you elected here in Dallas County are doing in the job you gave them. Do they handle their business like you expect them to? Are they fulfilling their campaign promises? It’s all just a click away.

If they aren’t, hold them accountable in the ballot box.

Finally, from an economic standpoint, the new systems are way too efficient and cost-effective to be temporary. Travel time to and from court takes time and money. Witnesses that might not have been otherwise available to spend all day away from work waiting on their turn to testify are now virtually available on a moment’s notice. Far away friends, family and supporters of loved ones involved in cases – whether the accused or the victim – can now be a part of the process.

We’re still at the beginning, but remote hearings have great potential. We’ve come a long way since mid-March and a time when I’d never heard of Microsoft Teams, or ever considered livestreaming my court. Though technology is changing the way we experience criminal cases, the logistical adaptations we’ve made in court leave us all better off than before.

 

The Honorable Brandon Birmingham presides over the 292nd District Court.

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