Grant money to help local courts with tech upgrades

News Photo by Julie Riddle Bent paper clips hold a smartphone on Chris Grant’s computer monitor, a workaround to allow the Alpena County juvenile probation officer to work via videoconference.

ALPENA — More than $54,000 promised to Alpena County will cover the bill for new technology to help ease the crunch of the coronavirus in local courtrooms.

Alpena courts received word last week that the county was approved for a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, earmarked for offsetting the effects of the pandemic on local court systems.

Local courts went all-virtual in the space of only a few days in late March, when much of the state was under stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Court officials were using bare-bones equipment at the time, including computer monitors with no camera or speaker — features vital to the videoconferencing that quickly became the new way of doing court.

Months of juggling digital hearings and wrangling virtual court participants — many of them uncomfortable with videoconferencing and using unreliable technology themselves — were all the more challenging as court personnel made the most of old equipment to do a new job.

The county budget didn’t have wiggle room for the purchase of new technology, although at least one new laptop was purchased as an absolute necessity, said Marcia Burns, 26th Circuit Court administrator in Alpena.

With the assurance of federal money to back new and needed tech, Alpena County’s circuit, district, and probate courts can invest in laptops, cameras, wireless headsets, and other equipment to enable court workers to work efficiently in a digital environment.

At the 4th District Probate Court, probation officer Chris Grant recently graduated to a slightly contorted business card holder to hang his smartphone from his computer’s dated monitor during videoconference calls with his 10- to 17-year-old charges. The business card holder is an upgrade from the creatively-bent paper clip hangers he used at first.

“It’s high-tech-ish,” Grant said, balancing his phone on the card holder in a demonstration of the creative lengths to which courts have gone to make sure the flow of justice continued undisturbed during the pandemic.

Thanks to the DOJ grant, his old computer will soon be replaced by one with modern capabilities, and perhaps a second monitor to make digital communication easier.

A nod to safety, the grant will also fund Plexiglas barriers for courtrooms, jury rooms, probation desks, and meeting rooms. Funds have also been earmarked to cover the costs of installing a monitor for remote public viewing of court activity and hiring a court reporter when jury selection has to be held offsite.

After months of bootstrapping their way through a high-tech challenge with low-tech equipment, court personnel will get a much-needed helping hand when their new equipment arrives — which, Burns said, will happen as soon as they can find spare funds to pay for it until DOJ reimbursement is received.

“We’re just so excited,” Burns said. “It’s been a long road.”


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