CROWN POINT | A plan is underway to move Lake County courts from behind the curve when it comes to the use of information technology.
Mark Price, a criminal court bailiff with a history of grant writing for nonprofits, is spearheading the effort for the courts after successfully landing a grant offered earlier this year by the Indiana Supreme Court.
Price said then-Lake Criminal Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr. asked him whether he'd be interested in responding to a statewide request by the high court for grant proposals from the judiciary.
The possible grants covered various topics, Price said. A decision was made to focus Lake County's request on technology.
The county is the second largest in the state but still uses "a rolling chalkboard with paper from the ’70s" during court proceedings, he said.
"You don't see a lick of technology in our courtrooms," he said.
That's expected to change dramatically over the next couple of years, with the judiciary and Lake County Sheriff John Buncich combining separate efforts to modernize, said Mark Pearman, the county's data processing expert.
Pearman said Buncich launched an effort in the last year or so toward video conferencing inside the jail, later expanding it into the courts for video arraignments. The technology minimizes the need to bring prisoners from the jail for hearings.
Lake Superior Court Judge Julie Cantrell volunteered to be the first, he said. The system has been installed in her courtroom but is not yet operational.
In the meantime, the court and county commissioners decided to install multimedia in the criminal courts, Pearman said.
"That all was started by Mark Price in Judge Stefaniak's court, when he was able to get some money from the state," Pearman said.
With the state grant, commissioners agreed to subsidize the cost, which has come to about $28,000 per courtroom, he said.
The decision was made to also bring the video conferencing from the jail and meld the two projects. Each project is using the same hardware to save money, Pearman said.
Currently funded are multimedia for three felony courts and the Circuit Court. It will be determined whether there is money in the current budget to outfit a civil court and the fourth felony court. Two or three civil courts may be added from the 2014 budget.
It's all a work in progress, but in the end everybody who wants the technology will get it as long as the money holds up, Pearman said.
With a two-week holiday hiatus underway, Price said technology is being installed in courtrooms of Judges Diane Boswell and Sam Cappas.
Court calls will be limited and handled by the Criminal Court magistrates.
To prepare for the proposal to the state, Price visited two federal courts, one in Hammond and the other in South Bend. Both courts offered the assistance of their information technology directors.
In South Bend, Price observed "great historical courtrooms" equipped with the latest technology for use in trials, evidence preservation and evidence presentation.
Price said Lake County chose to use 80-inch monitors rather than one monitor for two jurors to share because the courts still do in-custody hearings.
"We will have press-and-touch panels for the judge and whoever else the judge designates to control it, but all the proceedings in here will be controlled by the judge," he said.
Judges and attorneys will need training, Price said. He has plans to seek continuing education credits for attorneys who seek the training.
"Everybody wins," he said.
So far, the only office with the technology is the prosecutor's, he said. No one else had the money until the grant came along.
"The state wants us to succeed," Price said. "You need to have an equal playing field. So now the defense will have the exact same ability that the prosecutor's office does.
"Whether they choose to use it is up to the defense, but you can't say the court didn't offer it," he said.
Price said "old school" attorneys won't lose out by not being proficient in the technology.
They can still take a drawing or other such evidence to the podium, have it projected, printed and marked as an exhibit.
"They can still use their paper," he said.