WebRTC in the Criminal Justice System

WebRTC Feature Story

WebRTC in the Criminal Justice System

By Phil Edholm, President & Founder, PKE Consulting  |  November 05, 2014

While there have been many generic audio and videoconferencing uses of WebRTC, both by established conferencing vendors and new WebRTC-only entrants, the potential of WebRTC outside of being just another user interface in audio or video remains the huge potential of the technology. While some companies are focused on new areas like social, another major focus is on how WebRTC can be used in verticals.

For example, VIZICOM recently launched an application using the GENBAND Kandy (News - Alert) platform that enables home care follow-ups after a hospital visit using a generic tablet. The use of WebRTC to enable vertically specific applicants has huge potential as communications is added and where the value of WebRTC is optimized to the business situation.

JurisLink is a company focused on using WebRTC to transform the criminal justice system by delivering a focused vertical application using WebRTC. I spoke at length with Slade Trabucco, CEO of JurisLink. Slade has made the move from being a defense lawyer to technology entrepreneur, and it is clear that he believes in the value of what his team has created. 

JurisLink is a WebRTC-based app that is designed to enable defense lawyers to meet with their clients without traveling to the incarceration facility. JurisLink is a cloud service in conjunction with CaféX WebRTC technology, enabling confidential video meetings between attorneys and clients. Attorneys can schedule and conduct secure virtual meetings with clients from anywhere using WebRTC and an Internet connection, computer, and webcam. The client in the correctional facility engages the attorney through a web browser in a kiosk. Jail guards place the defendant in the video meeting room at the scheduled meeting time. Using WebRTC , the kiosk appliance is controlled remotely by the cloud-based JurisLink system, eliminating complexity and simplifying use.

The value of this vertical application could be huge. In the criminal justice system the vast majority of defendants are represented by court appointed lawyers or public defenders. In 2007, 964 public defender offices nationwide received nearly 6 million indigent defense cases. The result is an overwhelming demand for services.

The challenges may be best represented by New Orleans, where indigent people sit in jail uncharged, sometimes for weeks or even months, waiting for a lawyer whose caseload far exceeds reasonable standards. Legal guidelines suggest that public defenders handle no more than 400 misdemeanor cases in a year, a 2009 report found that part-time public defenders in Orleans Parish handled the equivalent of 19,000 misdemeanor cases annually per attorney – resulting in about seven minutes spent by a lawyer on each case on average.

The challenge is that often a lawyer must meet with a client during the process, necessitating a trip to the jail where the defendant is incarcerated. According to legal sources, between travel and waiting time, an attorney may spend up to 10 billable hours just to have a 20-minute conversation with a client. The JurisLink system is designed to enable a lawyer to meet with a client without travel or waiting, dramatically reducing the time wasted and increasing the capability to cover cases.

JurisLink is currently deployed in just one of the court districts in North Carolina. There are currently only 108 lawyers using the system and doing about 300 meetings a month. The majority are court appointed lawyers and public defenders. Based on 2007 data, there were more than 4,000 public defenders working in state criminal justice nationwide and probably two to four times as many court appointed lawyers, so the current penetration is a small fraction of one percent of the potential use of this application. 

However, the proven savings are huge. The NC State Public Defenders office has held more than 1,000 meetings using the tool, saving 20,000 miles of travel and reducing the time to get to the meeting by three days typically.

But the big savings is in the volume. The lawyers participating in the system are typically able to handle 25 to 50 more cases each month instead of sending them out to private court appointed attorneys. Each case sent out has a cost of $300. With an increased capacity of 40 cases per month, each lawyer using the system saves the state $108,000. For an office with 20 public defenders, that is $2 million in annual savings. In 2007 data, there were more than 4,000 public defenders working in state criminal justice nationwide, so the potential of using this technology nationally is a savings of almost $500 million tax dollars, not including travel and other costs.

In the use of the application in the federal courts using the JurisLink application, 400 meetings hosted resulted in $141,000 of saved travel time. This is a savings of about $350 per meeting.  The reason is that federal prisoners are held in facilities often located a significant distance from the trial location where the public defender/appointed lawyer is located. 

Slade and I talked about the fact that video use in the criminal justice system is not a new concept. Court systems have experimented with the technology for years. In fact I remember a video arraignment application we built at Nortel (News - Alert) back in the early 1990s.

I asked Slade what has changed. What he said was interesting: The key is to make it truly easy to use. As most of the lawyers are court appointed, having a tool that is complex, requires downloads, and includes other complexity has assured it will not be used. The key to the success they have been seeing is the ease of use that WebRTC has enabled, from the lack of downloads, easy click to start the meeting, and seamless operation. 

While the focus to date has been in facilitating defense lawyer-client meetings, the potential of other uses like arraignments or client-defense-prosecution meetings are on the roadmap, and the ability to easily add recording and other features are important. Also important is the ability to use the unique capabilities of WebRTC, such as adding an audio only translator into a privileged meeting. Finally, the security that WebRTC enables is paramount. Defense lawyers are inherently suspicious of communications, especially as those are transiting facilities of the incarceration facility. The inherent encryption and security built into WebRTC enables JurisLink to assure the lawyers that their communications will remain privileged and completely confidential.

Slade said that they decided to partner with a WebRTC platform vendor vs. developing the entire applications themselves to both accelerate development and assure quality. As Slade indicated, the challenge is getting adoption, and that requires that the applicant be optimized for the legal user and that Juris Link get its message out to the public defense community. By working with a platform vendor, JurisLink was able to focus on the application interface and marketing, not core development. The choice of CafeX was driven by the complete solution and tests that showed that the applicant would work in the challenging environments, including the need for TURN services to assure access both in the incarceration facilities and to a wide variety of law offices.

JurisLink is a great example of the innovation that will come as WebRTC rolls out in volume.  Just as the web of information changed business, adding real-time simple interaction can change a wide range of businesses and other activities. WebRTC and the range of vendors that can assist in rapidly enabling solutions assure rapid and successful deployment. The key is understanding the specific need and how the solution optimizes solving that need. 

JurisLink is demonstrating that and growing rapidly in solving a potential significant problem and opening a huge market. It is clear that the pervasive use of video in the criminal courts could save $2-5 billion per year. Assuming that 10 to 20 percent of that would be spent on the systems enabling the savings, the market is between $200 million and over $1 billion. It is easy to see why Slade is so excited about JurisLink’s prospects.

Phil Edholm (News - Alert) is the president and founder of PKE Consulting LLC (www.pkeconsulting.com).

Edited by Stefania Viscusi
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