BISBEE — Soft jazz flowed through the courtroom of Cochise County Superior Court Judge Laura Cardinal on a recent weekday as the jurist attempted to conduct a sentencing hearing.
The “mood music,” as Cardinal called it, interrupted the proceeding and the judge had to ask whether someone was on the courtroom’s phone line who had not placed their own device on mute.
In another courtroom just across the hall on any given day, Cochise County Superior Court Judge Timothy Dickerson attempts to conduct hearings with inmates appearing via video from the Cochise County Jail in Bisbee and Sierra Vista. Those sessions are often interrupted, or at least uncomfortable to sit through, because the deafening sounds of heavy metal doors slamming in the hallway are constantly in the background, forcing the judge to repeatedly ask an inmate what his or her name is.
Add to that cacophony the number of people — attorneys, victims, some defendants and the media — who are calling in to the courtroom phone lines. Sometimes the caller’s voice is too loud, too low or there’s an echo.
Such is the technology between the Cochise County Superior Court and the Cochise County Jail, an issue that was broached at a meeting Friday before the newly created Jail District Public Outreach Committee.
The panel was formed to determine and later recommend to the county’s Board of Supervisors whether a new jail and justice center should be built or whether upgrades should continue to be done to existing facilities.
Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels — whose office runs the jail — has been decrying the conditions at the older facility for months. Dannels and other law enforcement and court officials have long espoused that the ideal situation would be a jail and courthouse in one compound.
Cardinal, who gave a short presentation concerning the noises in her Division I courtroom — the original courtroom at the more than 90-year-old building — reminded the panel that since COVID more inmates are appearing by video, which brings with it a set of hurdles that include shaky communication with both judges and the inmates’ defense attorneys and jail noise.
The judge also mentioned there is a shortage of lawyers in the area who represent indigent inmates, and those who are being contracted by the court to do so are often in other parts of the state and must call in on the courtroom phone line. That creates some chaos because the attorney is on the phone and their client is on video and there is not much privacy for communication.
“We’re getting it done,” Cardinal said. “But our problem is keeping the record.”
Because there is also a shortage of court reporters in the area — there are three at the courthouse but they are used only for felony criminal trials and grand jury proceedings — daily routine hearings are captured by a recording service. That, however, picks up every sound that flows through the courtroom, said Judicial IT Manager Candece Hardt.
The Jail District Committee, made up of various appointed community leaders, also heard from jail officials concerning the transport of inmates to the courthouse and other facilities and how that contributes to everything from prompting continuances in court cases — which also causes an inmate to remain at the jail longer — to the issues with technology.
Sheriff’s Lt. Ariel Monge said the onset of the pandemic certainly increased the need for more video appearances by inmates. But when an inmate must appear in court, there are only five transport officers who can get them there. If some of those officers are busy taking other inmates to a doctor’s appointment or another facility, or the transport crew is bringing in a federal prisoner from another jurisdiction, that also causes setbacks in court proceedings.
Xochitl Orozco, the county’s legal advocate, said it’s challenging to present documents to an inmate via video or meet the inmate for the first time after his or her arrest on video inside a packed courtroom. Orozco also said that talking with an inmate at the jail is often difficult because there are not a lot of places where client and lawyer can speak in complete privacy without someone overhearing.
Orozco mentioned she had worked at another jurisdiction where the jail and the courthouse were attached. That arrangement, which many courthouse and jail officials are pushing for, would eliminate the time and cost of transporting inmates to the courtroom in vans — which jail Commander Kenny Bradshaw mentioned were not the most efficient vehicles on gas — and also cut back on the use of video appearances, which would in turn cut back on issues with technology.
State Rep. Gail Griffin has secured $20 million to go toward the new jail project, although she wanted $100 million, which at full buildout would include courts, probation and county attorney offices. The county would have to come up with additional money — about $90 million or more. That means voters would have to decide whether to approve a measure to pay the additional sum through a bond issuance or some form of tax with a 25-year sunset clause.
The vote would not have to be unanimous, just a majority, county officials have said.
The county’s Board of Supervisors may adopt a resolution after a public hearing where people can decide whether they’re in favor of establishing a jail district, Cochise County Administrator Richard Karwaczka told the Herald/Review recently. The supervisors are expected to decide on the jail district in October, but any action will depend on the Jail District Committee’s recommendation.