Every citizen charged with a crime has the right to a legal defense. When that future defendant suffers from mental health issues, that right becomes even more critical. Without the right support, such people are at the mercy of a system they may not even understand.
The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office in Washington is using video conferencing to make sure the rights of people with mental health issues are upheld. Under a new program, inmates awaiting trial will be offered online mental health assessments to speed up the delivery of support services wherever needed.
The inmates will undertake the same face-to-face assessments any defendant can undertake in person, but theirs will be delivered over the internet to make it easier, and quicker, for all the necessary parties to attend.
The program is another example of the evolving use of video conferencing to improve the justice system. What is more, if online mental health assessments prove successful in Snohomish, they could be rolled out to other critical fields.
Video Conferencing Justice
Video conferencing has certainly made an impact on the justice system. The technology has a role to play in every phase, from before a crime is committed to after the guilty party has been imprisoned.
Surveillance: Your webcam can be used as a home video security system based around your desktop/laptop. With the addition of a simple app, you can record the goings on around your home or stream the feed live to a remote device. A video calling doorbell can also be installed to screen visitors.
Responding to crime: Police in New York are using video calling to provide sign-language interpretation, while UK police use it to rapidly connect suspects with language translators during interrogation.
Connecting with legal support: Free legal services are currently offered by video conference across the U.S., and they allow clients to consult with pro bono lawyers and legal clinics.
During a trial: Video conferencing has commonly been used to connect defendants with their legal teams, and, more commonly overseas, to conduct witness testimony during a trial.
In jail or prison: Prison visitations via video conferencing have become so commonplace there are some prisons that now offer them exclusively in place of in-person visits.
In each case, video conferencing offers a cheaper, safer option for conducting the business of justice. Its use as a tool for online mental health assessment in Washington demonstrates how the technology can make things more efficient.
Rapid Video Screening
While using video conferencing to test the mental health of inmates could prove crucial to their legal defense, the real advantage for the Sheriff’s Office is speed. The office has been criticized for long delays in having defendants assessed, and has even been found in contempt of court for failing to meet fair timelines.
Employing video conferencing should speed up the pre-trial assessment process by removing the need for county staff, independent assessors, and the defense team to physically travel to the jail. Even if they’re only covering short distances, meeting online means they can gather at short notice and better coordinate group sessions and the accompanying scheduling difficulties that multiple parties cause.
The big caveat on the initiative is that it must be an effective way to conduct a mental health assessment. If the test can reach that benchmark–and research in other cases has proven that online physical and mental medical interventions can work as well as in-person treatments–then the procedure could be rolled out across other fields to provide large-scale assessments.
Online Mental Health Assessments in Schools, Immigration, and Hospitals
If the online mental health assessments prove a success in Snohomish, a similar method could be used to speed up assistance to people in other government waiting lines. Could it work within the school systems, be employed to screen refugees, or bring support to patients in hospitals?
In school: It’s safe to say that most U.S. schools have procedures in place to assess the mental health of their students. In rural and remote areas or resource-poor schools, however, the quality and frequency of that kind of watching eye may vary. Thankfully, high-speed broadband internet connections are common across the U.S., so it’s possible an online service could fill the gap. There is an online test for ADHD already available, so perhaps one day every student at a school could complete an online mental health assessment from the convenience of their own classroom, and be given all the educational support they need via video conference.
In immigration: French President Emmanuel Macron recently announced plans to remove 15,000 people from Africa to avoid a modern-day slave trade. At its most bureaucratic, that plan will require that those involved be interviewed and assessed to establish their identities, histories, health, and wellbeing. An online mental health assessment could be conducted at the same time to find out who needs a little extra support, and the burden for undertaking those assessments could be spread among physicians across Europe using video conferencing.
In the hospital: Not everyone who turns up at the emergency room brings with them a detailed medical history or a clear understanding of what’s happening. After initial treatment, a mental health assessment could clarify how much a patient understands about any decisions that might need to be made. An on-call, remote pool of mental health professionals could potentially service hospitals around the country via video conference and speed the delivery of support and a diagnosis.