Springfield, Oregon: Ahead of the Virtual Curve
April 29, 2022 by
Between the sprawling hills of the Willamette Valley, surrounded by bigleaf maple trees, and blunt green pine needles from Douglas firs often decorating the ground, you’ll find the charming city of Springfield, Oregon. Springfield boasts a beautiful landscape of wilderness along the I-5 corridor near the 295-acre campus of the University of Oregon. Most of Springfield’s economy centers on tourism from visiting friends and family of university students. As these out-of-town guests pass through Springfield, it’s not uncommon to be pulled over for speeding. Yet, while Springfield's rustic backdrop might be what charms its visitors, its court system is anything but — prioritizing convenient, efficient online processes for residents and visitors.
“If you get a ticket coming through my city and we didn’t have a virtual court, it would look like we’re behind,” says Springfield Court Supervisor Allison Sederlin.
Springfield’s court served as a leading beta tester for a new virtual court solution in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the height of the pandemic, when government buildings around the country closed, Springfield stayed ahead of the curve and was able to hold regular hearings at the click of a button. The town used modern technology for courts, which included a robust virtual court solution that integrated with court case management systems. Springfield courts began hearing all cases virtually, a simple and safe solution for both the court and all other participants.
With new methods, new challenges arose. One such obstacle involved adhering to the in-person formality of the courtroom. In the virtual space, defendants often appeared in casual attire, or they did not devote their full attention to the proceedings. Court staff in Springfield created a clever introductory video to outline expectations and set standards — from asking defendants to treat the experience like it’s in real life, to reminding them to silence any external noise. The video plays in the court’s virtual waiting room as defendants prepare for their hearing.
In a dire situation that halted most businesses, Springfield’s innovative approached helped them better serve their community during and after the pandemic. Today, Springfield offers a hybrid model, holding select cases in-person, and as many as 25 to 30 cases a week virtually. Some courts continue to use virtual hearings as part of their public health screening process. They can hold virtual hearings for those who answered ‘yes’ to any COVID-19 screening question, keeping all parties involved safe. In other jurisdictions, virtual court hearings helped address scheduling issues. For example, if a judge is out of state for few weeks or longer, rather than finding a substitute, courts don’t have to skip a beat, with the ability to offer virtual court and have the judge available remotely.
Virtual court sessions send a positive message about local government’s willingness to use technology to improve the citizen experience with an emphasis on safety and convenience.
“I don’t see a world where we don’t have a virtual option,” Sederlin says. “It may not be the primary option, but it’s always going to be there.