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Courts have defendants appear via video

George Villanueva, charged with first-degree murder in the death of a New York City police officer in March, will not leave jail for months of pretrial hearings.

Instead, he will be beamed into the Brooklyn courtroom via video as lawyers discuss his case in front of the judge.

Villanueva's case is part of a surge in court appearances done by video in New York and around the country, as communities look to boost efficiency and cut costs. The savings for some courts are staggering: $30 million in Pennsylvania so far, $600,000 in Georgia, and $50,000 per year in transportation costs in Ohio.

"We've had to trim our spending wherever we can and still provide what we think is effective constitutional justice," said Pennsylvania State Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille.

Advocates say the virtual hearing is easier on defendants, who don't have to get up at 4 a.m. to be shuttled with other criminal suspects to court, only to wait hours for an appearance. Judges say their cases are moving faster. And civil liberties groups say the practice raises no red flags.

"The technology is really exploding. It's gotten much cheaper and easier to run, and states are reporting a huge range of savings," said Jim McMillan of the National Center for State Courts, which in a national survey six months ago found that video use has vastly increased in the past five years. Initial appearances, mental health hearings and status conferences are among the most frequently conducted via video, according to the survey.

In New York, usage has more than quadrupled in the past two years, with Brooklyn leading the city, but only about 1,500 appearances were made via video in 2010 citywide among tens of thousands of cases. That small percentage has failed to produce major savings.

"For us to save on transportation, we'd have to have significant reductions to eliminate a whole bus trip," said Stephen Morello, correction spokesman.

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