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“Unacceptable.” Advocates hammer hearings from jail cells

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    MADISON, WI (365 Media Foundation, Inc) — Representatives from the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development are calling for a change to Dane County court hearings involving incarcerated people.  

Due to the pandemic, all court hearings are being conducted online. Incarcerated people, when appearing at an online court hearing, must either sit on the floor and speak through their food slot or stand and speak through the bars of their cell.

In a Facebook post, Nehemiah vice president of research and education shared a screenshot of a court hearing in which an inmate can be seen speaking through a food slot. She called it “unacceptable” and noted that the Dane County Criminal Justice Council had not responded to complaints.

According to officials at the Dane County Sheriff’s office, this procedure is a matter of maintaining COVID safety precautions.

“We are trying to limit the movement as much as possible,” said Kerry Porter, a captain with the Dane County Security Services Division.

A similar statement was echoed by the Dane County Sheriff’s Office Public Information and Education Officer Elise Schaffer, noting that the current online set up is “a safety issue.”

However, Phiffer noted otherwise; she said not only does the current procedure have a “dehumanizing effect” on the inmate but the failings of technology impede upon the “integrity” of the testimony and as such, the justice served. 

“There’s mountains of research that … the impression that court officials have of a person who is showing up in even their jail uniform or shackles or even just casual dress could have an impact on the outcome of court hearings, and so just for that reason, it’s critical to have them appear in as humane a setting as possible,” Phiffer said. “And besides that, in the initial appearances, especially that we’ve watched, you can see that the defendant is having trouble hearing, it’s not clear that they fully understand what’s happened, there’s no verification. 

“During this time we have to make big changes to keep on with our lives and keep our systems moving without endangering our health and safety, that’s important,” Phiffer continued. “That’s what the entire world is doing right now, but at the same time there has to be more thought put into how these hearings are happening to make sure that people’s rights are being maintained and that legal justice is being maintained. So, if there’s any question about the integrity of a hearing because of the way a person is appearing or any question about a defendant not fully understanding the proceedings that needs to be remedied.”

When asked to respond to claims that their current practice was “inhumane”, representatives from the Dane County Sheriff’s department Captain Schuetz and Porter had no comment.

“I don’t like the optics of that either,” Porter said. “Our preference would be to have inmates in person court hearings, as well. We’re hoping to get back to that point, as soon as possible. We’ve had a lot of discussions about how to facilitate those hearings and we haven’t had a great solution.”

In an attempt to alert criminal justice officials, Nehemiah court observers composed a letter to the Dane County Criminal Justice Council on December 16, 2020, stating their concerns and questions regarding the difficulties faced by prisoners during their court hearings.

Email responses were received from District 3 Supervisor Analiese Eicher, Sheriff David Mahoney, and District Attorney Ismael Ozanne.

“At this time you are observing a temporary fix to what we hope is a temporary situation (COVID-19), Ozanne wrote. “I’m sure there a number of solutions which would likely take resources to implement and if the decision is to move towards video appearance in the Dane County Courts these resources should be allocated immediately.”

Ozanne could not be reached by Madison365 for further comment.

Phiffer added the response the court observers received were “really dismissive.”

Similar statements were made orally by Nehemiah court observers during the Criminal Justice Council meeting on Feb 25, 2021.

Moving forward, Nehemiah representatives will be attending more meetings to voice their concerns including a Public Protection and Judiciary Committee meeting on March 23 and a Criminal Justice Council meeting on March 25.

“I can’t imagine that there’s no solution to this. That’s absolutely ridiculous,” Phiffer added.

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