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Court TV

The County's New Closed Circuit Video System and Its Reluctant Guest Stars

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By Joy Bergmann

Cook County sheriff's deputies keep fiddling with the wires, but there's still no picture on the television monitor that's mounted above room 111's toilet facilities. "Last time I tried it," one says, "it was Channel 11 that worked."

About eight feet away Judge Nicholas Ford's staff peer into their own monitors, which are encased in a cheap cabinet facing the bench. They squint, transfixed, like expectant parents trying to make out the sex of an ultrasound fetus.

Further jiggling of knobs finally bears fruit. The screens fill with the first official image of Central Bond Court via closed-circuit television: a fat deputy munching Chinese food from a paper plate. She stands oblivious one floor below the courtroom, "on the bridge," the area in the basement of the Cook County Criminal Courts Building near the holding cells. Moans erupt upstairs. An observer clucks, "Your tax dollars at work!"

Before January 28 the 11 AM narcotics bond call at 26th and California began with people who'd recently been arrested for drug possession and delivery lining up along a corridor outside the large, stately room 101, where Judge Ford would emerge from his chambers ready for the daily onslaught of around 80 men and 20 women.

The proceedings rarely varied. Judge Ford, a 35-year-old former state's attorney, called out names. A deputy led the defendants one at a time into the courtroom for their 30 to 60 seconds of adjudication. The judge informed them he'd read the arrest reports and found probable cause to detain, citing Gerstein, the case that gives the court that authority. The state's attorney read the charges and listed their criminal records. The public defender provided their ages, living situations, educational and employment histories, and occasional humanizing details such as church membership, military service, or participation in organized athletics. The judge then announced what kind of bond they'd get.

Defendants received either an I bond, a no-money-down deal based on personal recognizance, or a D bond, which required them to put up in cash 10 percent of the amount the judge decided on. Preliminary hearing dates were set. Miscommunications were clarified on the spot. The fatherly Judge Ford, sitting on his high perch, sternly admonished younger detainees to keep their curfews. The deputy then trooped the defendants away.

The shabbily genteel courtroom grounded each face-to-face encounter in somberness. Defendants could see and be seen by family and friends who'd come to court. They could give a tip of the chin, an air smooch, a shamed shrug, or a wave to their children. Bloody garments, limps, glazed expressions, meek shuffling, scrubbed uprightness, odors, and cocky struts provided a fuller picture of the accused.

All that changed when closed-circuit TV monitors were added.

On the first day of the new system, disoriented family members, grumbling and confused, wander into room 111, which is around the corner from room 101. As latecomers arrive, the newly wise fill them in. "They ain't bringing nobody down. You got to watch them on TV."

Derrick, who's here for a friend, shakes his head indignantly, jostling the crucifix around his neck. "They can't see their families," he says. "You don't get to see your people. You don't get that contact, that moral support. They're not even convicted yet. I say innocent until proven guilty."

Nicole, who's waiting to see her niece on-screen, slumps in her seat with the niece's toddlers. The two girls are in matching outfits and beaded cornrows. "This sucks," Nicole says, dropping her head. "She doesn't even know I have her kids."

Meanwhile, a sheriff's supervisor proudly describes the new technology to a group of curious cops and private defense attorneys. He says the bond-call process will be streamlined and safety improved by leaving the defendants down on the bridge. He giddily points to the designated phone line for attorney-client communications, saying, "See, this is like two tin cans between them!"

The 400-square-foot room is bisected by a beige partition, on one side of which are four pews that together hold a maximum of 24 adults. Acoustic tiles bulge along the ten-foot ceiling. A big hole above the judge's chair spits old wiring. The dozen staff sit in stained orange chairs. No clock is visible. There's none of the wood-paneled seriousness of room 101.

Judge Ford walks through the single door. The bailiff cries "All rise!" to the standing-room-only crowd. For the first two days of TV bond court it's female defendants only.

Higher-ups from the public defender's office are still meeting upstairs with Daniel Gallagher, the lawyer the office has assigned to the first defendant. They're scrambling to put together case law and constitutional arguments against the use of the TV format. Gallagher is late, which irks Ford, who's trying to placate the crowd in room 111.

The first defendant, Lela M., appears alone on-screen, a 14-inch figure standing on the bridge. "Is there anybody here on her behalf?" Ford asks the visitors. He then asks Lela if she'd like to proceed without her public defender present. Lela--a college student, a rarity among defendants--replies directly to the camera, "Do you think that would be wise?" Visitors in the audience chuckle. The judge says they'll wait.

After about ten minutes the monitor goes out. "This is crazy!" exclaims a mother.

Deputies leap up and jostle the connectors, and Lela returns, staring placidly into the lens.

Gallagher finally rushes in and begins excitedly stating his office's objections to the closed-circuit system. Judge Ford tersely reminds him of the Illinois statute that authorizes it. The state's attorney busies herself arranging files.

The judge thanks Lela for her patience. Then he and the attorneys follow their usual script. Lela and the public defender who's with her in the basement can see only the faces of Ford and his clerks and the backs of the state's attorney and Gallagher on the screen of their monitor.

Lela, who has no criminal background, receives an I bond. She'll be leaving in a few hours. D bond recipients who can't pay stay in jail awaiting their series of preliminary hearings, pretrial motions, assignment calls, and trial dates. Holding them costs $44 per day per inmate, excluding health-care costs. Meters are running for 9,455 inmates at 26th and California.

Judge Ford calls for Dawn E. She moves in, glancing wildly at the camera and then her attorney. The judge says with folksy friendliness, "Hi, Ms. E! How are you?"

Other disoriented newcomers and hardened veterans appear and disappear, their images flickering on the monitor. An apparent drug addict bizarrely waves. A woman with supermodel cheekbones looks wanly into space. An older lady with visible bruises and an eye patch struggles to answer the judge.

When court adjourns one deputy tells another, "They need an X on the floor down there, like on Johnny Carson, so they know where to stand."

"I think it went well," says her colleague, "better than I thought it would."

"I'm kind of disturbed," says an agitated Gallagher. "Nothing is real. The reality aspect is a little removed. I think [closed-circuit] is great for downstate--put three counties together and have a centralized bond court. But 30 feet away? Downstairs? What's the efficiency in that?"

The efficiency was four years in the making. According to the Cook County sheriff's office, Ameritech donated the $500,000 worth of equipment in 1994--at no cost to the county--as part of its commitment to providing advanced technology to law enforcement agencies.

Sheriff Michael Sheahan stated in a February 28 press release, "Implementation of the system is intended to ease security concerns that exist when...correctional officers are required to move large numbers of criminal defendants to court appearances at the Criminal Courts Building. In addition, early results show the system is expediting the time required for judges, court personnel and sheriff's officers to conduct the entire bond court hearing process."

Yet defendants are still transported from area police stations to holding pens in the basement of the courthouse, so the only part of the trip that's been eliminated is the ride up the elevator. And bond proceedings still take 30 to 60 seconds, just as they did in person.

Defense lawyers think the motives for the change are more insidious. Private defense attorney Stuart Goldberg says, "It's simply the furtherance of depersonalization in the criminal justice system." He thinks the monitors create "inanimate" defendants and separate them from their accusers.

Patrick Gleason, director of operations for the Cook County public defender's office, concurs. "We see it as a first step--a very dangerous first step--toward dehumanizing citizens accused of crimes." He defends his office's tactic of repeatedly objecting to the process on constitutional grounds during the first few days. "We will not participate in a system that will not allow us to adequately protect our clients," he says, his face flushing. "Our job is to defend poor people and not let them get screwed."

Michael Quigley--a former private defense attorney and a new Cook County commissioner, which means he has a role in overseeing the court system's budget--is more diplomatic. "Expediency for the sake of expediency is problematic," he says. "But this is different. If you are with your client, have you really deprived them of any rights, whether the judge is in a camera making this mechanical decision versus whether they are in front of him?"

Judge Ford doesn't think so. Five days after the system is introduced he's enthusiastic. "[Defendants] are more into it now than they were before," he says. "They're not distracted by who's in the courtroom, families present and so forth. I have their attention more than before." He adds, "Anything we can do to alleviate the logistical processes is a big help." Glancing around his crowded shared office, he says, "This building was built in 1930. We have had more individuals through here by today, February 4, than would have come through in 1930 for the entire year."

Asked how much efficiency has been gained given that the defendants are in a room directly below his courtroom, Ford cites safety, saying, "We had [defendants] lined up by a door to an open setting. Thank God nothing's ever happened, but the potential was always there." Yet accused murderers and sex offenders, who are still brought through the old courtroom, continue to line up at that same door.

Standing in front of the elevator to the basement you can see the upstairs holding area where female defendants loiter after their bond-court hearing. Their property is stacked nearby in plastic bags marked with numbers matching those scrawled on their hands. The light is an awful green.

Down on the bridge the air smells of cheap tequila, stale cigarettes, soiled clothing. To the right of the elevator are three dim bull pens that hold up to 40 men or women each. Supposedly each bull pen has a toilet, though it's hard to spot through the detainees. Yellow lines on the floor direct traffic. There's one tunnel that leads to jail and another that leads to the docking station where police drop off arrestees.

Ten feet past the bull pens is a small room that contains the closed-circuit camera. It's stuffed with two deputies, an enormous desk, file cabinets. A fluorescent light buzzes. A monitor showing the judge's chair is perched high on top of a filing cabinet, and the camera angles down from above it. A small puck on the ceiling serves as the microphone. Defendants walk from the bull pens and join their lawyers in the doorway, facing the camera as they're called by the judge.

A week into the experiment spectators spill out into the hallway outside room 111. A woman bursts through the door, tears on her cheeks, chest heaving. A young mother seizes the opportunity to get in, and her baby barely escapes getting crushed in the door. Fifty visitors cram into the warm room. The staff yawn. The rhythmic shuffling in and out of defendants no longer breaks the monotony. The public defenders have stopped making constitutional objections to the new system.

Male defendants are now filing before the camera. They haven't created the chaos anticipated, though after today's tenth defendant disappears from the screen, Gallagher, who's down on the bridge, stares nervously to his right for a long moment.

"What is the problem, Mr. Gallagher?" Judge Ford barks.

"Sir, there seems to be some sort of altercation," Gallagher says, still looking down the hallway.

"Let's move on, Mr. Gallagher."

"Sir, I have to be concerned for my safety."

The judge, unable to see or hear the altercation, commands the next defendant to appear.

The parade continues. Family members are coached to stand when their kin appear to let Ford know they're present, but he often doesn't see them. Mothers silently rise and depart unnoticed. Attorneys have their backs turned, the judge concentrates on the file, the mammoth cabinet with the monitors blocks the view, and the place bulges with staff and sheriffs. One woman mumbles, "My bedroom's bigger than this."

On February 28 the sheriff's office issued a press release calling the early results of the closed-circuit bond-court project "extremely encouraging." So much so that officials are working to phase out night bond court by June and replace it with a closed-circuit session in the afternoon. Plans are also under way to make all felony bond hearings closed-circuit, except when individuals are charged with murder or sexual assault.

Sheriff Sheahan has proposed that the system be expanded to all county court facilities as well as Chicago police stations. TV monitors could then be used for pretrial court business and status hearings if prosecutors and defense attorneys agree to it.

By week three the routine in room 111 seems comfortable. Gallagher is upstairs entertaining the guards in the basement with a shadow-puppet show before the court session. Signs have finally been posted directing family members to the correct room. A couple more benches have materialized, though no clock. Cook County and U.S. flags now dress up Judge Ford's bench.

A defendant appears on-screen. At exactly 11 AM the judge says, "Good morning, Mr. H. I have read your arrest report finding probable cause. Gerstein. State?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs by Lloyd DeGrane.

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