The push to make virtual court appearances less ‘dehumanizing’ for defendants

MADISON, Wis. — The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the way all things operate, including how people show up for their court appearances.

Defendants in Dane County often appear through a food slot hole or cell window. It’s something Sandi Reinardy said makes her job as a court observer more challenging.

“They’re hardly visible,” Reinardy said.  “Sometimes they have a mask on. It’s hard to tell whether they have proper access to their attorney and whether they are receiving due process rights when appearing that way.”

Reinardy is a court observer for Nehemiah. She leads a group that’s focused on recording how racial disparities play a role in the criminal justice system.

“There’s lots of research that indicates when defendants are shackled, when they’re in prison garb, that affects the perception of the people hearing the case,” she said.

When making their initial appearance through a food slot hole or cell window, Reinardy said it automatically makes the defendant look guilty and is “dehumanizing”.

Reinardy and other court observers have been vocal about their frustration with this system and have sent numerous emails to those who could help change the way defendants appear for virtual appearances.

In a letter to District Attorney Ismael Ozanne explaining their concerns, the DA responded by saying: “Historically in Dane County, we have not moved towards video appearances as some other counties around the state have… at this time you are observing a temporary fix to what we hope is a temporary situation.”

Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney responded saying: “Your concerns are shared by myself and many of our judges but in the current COVID housing and restrictions this facility has we are doing our very best to meet the needs of the courts and the needs of the individual.”

Reinardy replied, “We don’t believe this is the only possible solution at our jails. They have legal visiting rooms which still have a fiberglass barrier where an attorney would sit on one side and the defendant would sit on the other. It wouldn’t be ideal but those, for example, could be used with a camera on the other side and would at least show the defendant in full view.”

Reinardy acknowledges the challenges the courts have faced during the pandemic to modify the way they do things, but said making adaptations for a proper court hearing is essential to a fair criminal justice system.

“Anyone who has worked this year has had to figure out new technology solutions, shift their work environments, adapt to new ways of doing things,” Reinardy said. “They have a public responsibility to ensure that defendants’ due process rights are protected.”

Reinardy said she is trying to increase the pressure to modify the virtual court hearings by reaching out to elected and public officials in the coming weeks.