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How 3 Local Governments Are Increasing Access to Justice

By Steve Goll

Access and equity are two critical qualities the public expects from government. Government must not only stay open, but it must meet the diverse needs of the public. In the case of our court systems, having equitable access to justice is a fundamental right.

The pandemic spurred governments to find innovative ways to stay open in the face of uncertainty. The same cloud-based technologies that kept staff and constituents safe have also enabled courts to provide better service to defendants, litigants, and those under supervision.

Virtual technologies such as online ticket adjudication, virtual courts, online guided forms, online dispute resolution and supervision case management have expanded what it means for local courts to provide equitable access to justice.

The whitepaper, “Connected Solutions for Justice,” describes these virtual justice technologies and how they provide significant benefits to constituents and courts.

Virtual Courts in Springfield, Oregon

Virtual hearings were a go-to solution during the pandemic. But jurisdictions quickly realized that videoconferencing alone wouldn’t cut it for people who couldn’t make it to the courthouse. These courts turned to purpose-built virtual court technologies that combined videoconferencing with the ability for judges and litigants to remotely access case information and to electronically sign documents.

Court officials in the city of Springfield, Oregon, had explored virtual court technology before the pandemic as a way “for people to have their day in court and talk to a judge if they want to without having to take time from work or childcare,” said court supervisor Allison Sederlin. Today, Springfield conducts 25 to 30 virtual cases a week for initial appearances involving just a defendant and a judge.

Online Guided Forms in Peoria County, Illinois

Self-represented litigants — those who engage the courts without an attorney — produce around 11% of all court document filings yet make up over 50% of all requests for assistance.

Before Peoria County, Illinois, introduced guided online filings, constituents struggled with filling out a complex form. “People were trying to read the instructions and asking for help if they needed it,” said Jennifer Shadid, formerly an assistant court administrator. Today, more than 95% of the county’s petitions are filed using online forms that guide people through the questions. “People can do this 24/7. You don’t have to wait for the court to be open, and you can do it using your phone,” Shadid said. “It’s so much more accessible.”

Supervision Software in Clark County, Nevada

Nationwide, the number of incarcerated people awaiting trial totals more than 400,000 — as much as 70% of local jail populations. Case management supervision software helps to keep these defendants out of jails, in their jobs, and with their families while waiting for their trial.  

In Nevada, the Clark County Department of Juvenile Justice uses supervision software to track and help at-risk youth before they enter the justice system. “We had disproportionally more Black and brown children,” said John “Jack” Martin, the department’s director. “We knew if we addressed specific issues and wrapped children in resources, we could break the community-to-prison pipeline.”

Connecting Solutions

For cities and counties looking to tie new and existing court technologies together, the whitepaper details opportunities for integration among systems and provides advice on implementation. To avoid getting overwhelmed, experts advise focusing first on the benefits of a single solution for staff and constituents. Once multiple technologies are connected, courts can employ the power of a completely integrated end-to-end system to ensure equity in justice.

Steve Goll is the editorial content manager at Tyler Technologies, Inc. In his role, he shares stories of government leaders finding solutions to challenges across a range of disciplines. During his 15 years of government experience, he worked at the state level in economic development and higher education, at the local level in K-12 education, and at the county/regional level as a workforce development council member.

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