Bringing Courtrooms Online for Speedier Justice

How a Provincial Justice System Increased Safety, Processed More Criminals, and Took Thousands of Vehicles Off the Road
Anthea Rowe September 15, 2017
In Ontario, anyone charged with a crime must see a Justice of the Peace within 24 hours of arrest. If the accused doesn't speak either of Canada’s two official languages, he or she must receive access to an interpreter. The accused gets a 90-day bail review with a Judge and every 90 days after until being released or sent to trial. The average person accused of a crime makes between three and 13 remand appearances.

The Problem

The High Cost of Processing Criminals

In 1999, the provincial Ministry of Justice in Ontario, Canada, was processing more than 180,000 criminals per year, all of whom were being transported from correctional facilities to court.

The province's sprawling size — more than four times the size of the United Kingdom — coupled with the government’s decision to locate some of its largest jails far outside urban centres, meant the demands were great. Judges, lawyers, prisoners and the accused faced huge travel times for short court appearances. Costs and inefficiencies piled up across the province. For remote parts of Ontario, travel costs to get a prisoner to court could exceed $1,500 (CDN) per trip and can require smaller communities to send the bulk of their police force to accompany an arrestee.

The Pilot

The Tele-Conferencing Experiment

“It started as a pilot,” said Horace McPherson, Senior Manager of the Justice Video Network. “In 1999, the Ontario government created a province-wide IT system that connected the courts, police, and correctional institutions.” The Justice Video Network began with video remands: allowing people to make the required appearance before a justice of the peace within 24 hours of their arrest.

After that successful pilot, JVN has expanded to include almost every aspect of the court system, from remands to translations to expert testimonies. The process now involves courts, correctional institutions, and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) as well as municipal police. “Plus, the Ontario government has created IT clusters like the one I’m part of, to support the systems,” said McPherson.

The Justice Video Network is a prime example of the first stage of innovation outlined in NBS’s report on Innovating for Sustainability: operational optimization. Or, simply put, “doing the same things better.” Such resource-constrained innovation makes the most efficient use of assets at hand and produces steady operational improvements.

Specifics

How the Justice Video Network Works

The Justice Video Network (JVN) is a videoconferencing and converged communication technology requiring specialty knowledge for implementation. The current systems are based on the same technology that supports a voice over IP (VOIP) network, or in this case, video-over-IP. A powerful, dedicated communications network supports the video-conferencing, along with extensive audio-visual installations such as room control systems, large screens, high-end microphones, and speakers. A central data centre processes all the videoconferencing activities throughout the province.

The eight-person JVN team offers professional technology services like project management, business analysis, IT Management, vendor management, financial management, solution design, and verification. The vendor implements the technology, responds to connection outages, and manages the video infrastructure.

JVN also operates under a strict governance structure with the guidance of two steering committees. One is a director-level steering committee sometimes called the "Working Group." The other is the Steering Committee, which approves business cases and costing models and develops strategic directions.

The JVN operates on a dedicated video network to provide high-quality video; the cost is about $1,000 per month per location, which includes support and usage statistics.

Implementing the video-conferencing system required that the IT group "unlearn" old practices. They had to change a number of process between the ministries and their business units. The IT group also created local, regional and provincial video committees to enable cross-company collaboration and working relationships. Today, there are 450 JVN end points, where the video interactions take place — including special rooms and kiosks in jails, courtrooms and policing stations. As the system has matured, special “integrated courtrooms” have been constructed to display evidence on laptops and big-screen displays, with high-quality lighting improving the experience.

“In addition to reducing the long-distance travel needed to uphold the law in years past,” said McPherson, “the video system enables court officials, police professionals, witnesses and the accused alike to access the system from anywhere in the province. And testimony can be given from anywhere in the world where there is videoconferencing capability.” For example, in 2011 country music star Shania Twain testified via videoconference against a man who was allegedly stalking her.

The JVN has also enabled the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) to create a Virtual Classroom Program to remotely train police officers.

The Results

Cost Savings, GHG Reductions, and Increased Safety

To date, the JVN has significantly improved the functioning of Ontario’s justice system. Through exploitation and innovation of existing product capabilities, judges no longer need to travel long distances to conduct short hearings, and lawyers can book teleconferences with in-custody clients: In 2012 alone, Legal Aid Ontario conducted more than 28,000 virtual interviews between case workers and incarcerated clients.

The JVN processes approximately 135,000 accused people per year, minimizing the costs of travel throughout the justice system. The environmental benefits of videoconferencing have also been enormous. In 2011, the OPP saved 294,000 kilometres of employee travel, eliminating 279.78 tonnes of GHG emissions, by using the Virtual Classroom Program.

This case study showcases innovation practices identified in the systematic review Innovating for Sustainability.