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St. Lawrence County looks at technology to reduce indigent defense cost

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CANTON — Reducing the cost of indigent defense through virtual court appearances could be in St. Lawrence County’s future.

The county is in beginning discussions with SUNY Canton on a grant application for a program that would use students to explore how electronic technology could make the county’s court system spread over 32 towns and 13 villages more manageable.

The multiyear-grant application would propose using criminal justice students to research how to make video court appearances possible and to identify obstacles to that approach.

“Is there a way for us to be able to cut our costs significantly?” County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said. “If it is feasible, what would it take to implement that?”

Cost assessment, including the type of equipment needed, would be a part of the study.

Some impediments already are known.

Defendants have the right to physically appear in court and many probably would want to keep that within their control if for no other reason than to temporarily get out of jail.

State Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, has introduced a bill that would amend criminal procedure law to allow for electronic court appearances, except at a hearing or trial, to speed up proceedings and lessen costs, such as the transportation of prisoners. Other savings could include the time police, district attorneys and public defenders spend traveling from court to court.

“The cost is outrageous just because of the way we’re set up as a county,” Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, said.

A way for defendants to consult privately with their attorneys would be necessary, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

Video arraignments are in use in other parts of the country.

“It’s a vision for a different kind of courtroom three to five years down the road,” Ms. St. Hilaire said. “We want to make this a model for New York state.”

Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler, said he thought the idea was excellent.

“The savings could be enormous,” he said.

County officials hope to have an agreement worked out with SUNY Canton in the next few months so that any grant awarded could have students beginning their research next spring.

“We are excited by the prospect of our students interacting with the local legal system as part of their SUNY Canton education,” SUNY Canton spokesman Gregory E. Kie said in an email. “We are still in the very preliminary planning stages of these arrangements, but look forward to further discussions with the county as to how we can best assist.”

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