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Video system to help screen inmates

Every day, dozens of new inmates crowd into the Hillsborough County Jail's tiny courthouse. It's hot. It's sticky. But they must face a judge there who advises them of their charges, rights and bail. In January, that will change. The inmates still will show up in court, but the judges won't be there _ at least not in person.

The inmates will appear on a new video-recording system linked to similar equipment in a courtroom at the Jefferson Street courthouse annex. The judges and lawyers will see and speak to them without ever visiting the jail. Prisoners will communicate the same way.

It represents "a move into the 21st century," Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez said Friday.

"Some judges are a little leery because it's something new," Alvarez said. "But if it helps the system become more effective, and we're not shortchanging the defendants' rights, then that's the way we've got to go."

Pinellas County has operated a similar program for two years. Hillsborough's program will cost about $300,000 to put the new system in place, Alvarez said. That includes the cost of renovating a new courtroom for the judge who used to spend his mornings at the jail.

But Alvarez said it's money well-spent. In the short run, the system will save time because court officials won't have to run back and forth between the courthouse and the jail.

In the future, when the system can handle arraignments or even plea agreements, it will save the money used to transport prisoners to the courthouse.

"I hope tomorrow we can have a video in every courtroom," Alvarez said. "It's making us a little more progressive."

Nowadays, a band of court officials _ including judges, clerks, bailiffs and lawyers _ treks from the courthouse each morning to the jail for the preliminary hearings. At these hearings, people who have been arrested and jailed in the past 24 hours are processed.

Inmates far outnumbered court officials, creating a security risk, said Circuit Judge Walter R. Heinrich, who advises about 150 inmates every morning.

"I'll feel a lot safer on TV," Heinrich said.

Heinrich will work with prosecutors and public defenders in the new courtroom. The defense lawyers will telephone their clients in soundproof booths, Alvarez said.

But defense attorneys are worried about how well that will work.

"We're concerned about being able to communicate with clients and advise them during proceedings," said Assistant Public Defender Wayne Chalu. "We haven't settled if it would be better for us at the jail or at the courthouse."

Prosecutors think it will work just fine.

"It makes it a lot easier," said prosecutor Hank Lavandera. "It's a very small courtroom (at the jail). There's hardly anyplace for anybody to be situated. Now, we don't have to be sending people over there."

The county already has started renovating the new courtroom. On Friday, workers removed potentially dangerous asbestos insulation. Heinrich said he's ready for the change.

"It's going to be a great improvement," he said.

Is he nervous about appearing on screen?

"I'm probably more nervous in the jail than I will be on TV," Heinrich said.