Leading from the bench: How courts can improve the justice system with document management

Once, I was visiting a clerk of the courts when very bad news came. An individual with an outstanding warrant was not arrested as the warrant ordered, and he had gone on to commit an additional and deadly crime.

The sheriff’s deputies stored their warrants in the trunk of their vehicle. This individual’s warrant had been lost in the trunk of one of these vehicles. Of course, the story ends in a terrible headline.

As we face our current economic downturn, the cuts to government agencies are getting serious. Thankfully, public safety is often the last to be cut. But, there is still plenty of pressure to cut non-personnel costs, while doing everything possible to preserve the staff necessary to respond to and prevent crime.

Unfortunately, more staff would not have changed the story I mentioned. The fact is that courts are overwhelmed. This story is not about staff error, it’s about how paper impedes the functioning of the justice system.

Courts are the end of the line for lots of paper. The paper file begins with a crime, grows with investigation, passes to prosecutors and finally, goes to courts and incarceration. Not unlike the chain of evidence, the documents, reports, briefs and doers and sentences must be maintained and readily available to those asked to make decisions. Only then is the justice system functioning properly. Like the chain, loss or access to key documents must not be broken.

But what happens when it is broken – like when a document goes missing that is supposed to trigger the next event?

Yes, the traditions of the bar are wrapped in paper. But here’s the reality: using paper to make the next events and responses happen – all among the separate, moving parts of our justice system – is too unreliable.

I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that I’m a huge advocate for managing paper and processes in a more electronic way. Throughout my career in the public sector, I’ve found great success in using document management software, especially when it’s integrated with other systems.

How could it have helped the overburdened staff in this situation? That warrant document would have been:

•Electronically stored in a secure system.
•Able to be viewed by multiple people at the same time, ensuring that the justice process doesn’t slow down.
•Automatically routed to the right people for review and then for action, specifically, arrest.
•If they weren’t reviewing it soon enough, both they and their supervisor would receive a notification.

Let’s take this to the next steps in the justice system. What if parole and probation officers could access the same system when they are asked to watch over a client? What kind of savings would be generated by a system that never loses a document, never needs to messenger case files, and even accepts filings electronically to avoid paper? And, what if the workflow could complete the circle, making sure that all warrants were successfully closed with an arrest and processed into custody?

This vision of integrated justice is one that’s time has come. The source of savings in this type of software lies in a central and secure repository that eliminates duplication and document loss, while also and using workflows to help overburdened staff keep on top of necessary activities. In a big picture sense, it would help the justice system function effectively in its most vital mission – keeping the public safe.

Courts may be last in the decisions, but they have the opportunity to be the first in leadership. Their decisions, procedures and traditions can provide a path to a better and cheaper justice system.

It’s time to link the entire justice system using the right technology, such as document management software. Doing so would not only improve justice, reallocate staff and reduce errors – it would help the courts cut costs. And, it would produce that elusive and nearly impossible government moment – a cost savings effort that makes government better.

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Christopher Whitaker

We recently switched to a electronic case file instead of paper files and I love it – no really, I think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.

Before, our adjudicators were always looking for the protests that employers would send in. It was a pain in the butt! Worse, when a employer or a claimant protested our decision we would have to gather the files from the file room and FEDEX the whole thing downtown at great expense.

Not anymore! Since we scan everything, anything that the claimant turns in becomes instantly available to any worker in the state. It’s much much better and I will never ever ever go back. Never ever.

I could definitely see how such a system would benefit the justice system. My only question would be, how cops would be able to print out a warrant on-the-go (if they received a warrant while on patrol somewhere). Would we be able to get printers that small and portable (would it even be needed?)

Terri Jones

Thanks for the comment. You present a good and interesting question. I wonder if we could get to the point where we would just accept an electronic version? But as for printers, yes there are printers that small. If we adjusted the format, we could use the same printer that Hertz uses to check in my rental car. I think it is really a question of can we change, and to ensure that we don’t lose what’s important when we make changes.

I am glad to hear about your success and maybe we will always have a paper warrant, but I would like an electronic one so we don’t lose track of things!