Virtual systems create social distancing for Washington County court hearings


FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — COVID-19 preparation forced many sectors in Northwest Arkansas to rethink operational methods. For the Washington County judicial system, virtual measures are minimizing the need to physically attend proceedings.

“We have to act responsibly and limit contact, so in order to carry out our duties and serve the public, we had to have another way,” said Kevin Metcalf, the county’s deputy prosecuting attorney. “So, Zoom was set up and given to us.”

A virtual conference platform called Zoom is now being used by judges across the state, Metcalf said. In Washington County, Hon. Judge Threet is already putting it to use in the circuit court.

“This morning, for about an hour and a half, I did [virtual] hearings from the jail for detainees for bonds,” Threet said.

Zoom does have its disadvantages, Threet said.

“It’s far less comfortable,” Threet said.

All essential proceedings are workable with Zoom, Threet said, and there’s an expectation usability will improve with time as attorneys and judicial employees become more familiar with the intricacies of the program. A Supreme Court order eliminated non-essential proceedings entirely.

“We’re only doing it for emergencies…so, protective orders, mental commitments [and] what we were doing this morning setting bonds and such,” Threet said.

The virtual hearings will help an older, more-vulnerable population, Metcalf said, and public services shouldn’t be limited to people young and healthy enough to risk exposure.

“There are some people, just one slip up when they get out, and it could be serious, serious health consequences or even worse,” Metcalf said. “So, we do have it all set up where people don’t actually have to come to the courthouse now.”

People who don’t have technological resources available to attend services remotely can still come to the courthouse, but they’ll be led to a sectioned-off room stocked with computers that’ll be separate from the rest of the building. This’ll keep them from potentially bringing in the virus if they’re infected.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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