Montgomery County Hoping to be Among First in Texas to Go to a 'Paperless' Justice System

In heralding this statewide development, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said: "In the 21st century, we can no longer rely on an 18th- and 19th- century vision for our systems. E-filing will revolutionize our courts for the better."

by Cindy Horswell, McClatchy News Service / July 2, 2014

As Texas mandates electronic filing of all civil cases as part of a push toward a "paperless" statewide justice system, Montgomery County is installing a state-of-the-art computer system that will seamlessly share data among judges, clerks, prosecutors and investigators.

"We want to be a leader in the move toward this integrated electronic system for all data statewide, one that could make us among the first to go paperless," said Marshall Shirley, the county's information and technology director. That's why the county is spending $8.1 million to update its antiquated, non-Windows based system, which is more than a decade old.

Officials began with the purchase of laptop computers for sheriff's office patrol cars in 2011, followed by the installation of an integrated computer system for clerks, courts and prosecutors in 2012. Last week, a $2.6 million contract was issued for the latest computer software to serve the sheriff office's headquarters and deputies on patrol.

All that remains is to choose a new system for the jail that would be compatible with separate systems at the courthouse and sheriff's office. Shirley wants to have the jail's system updated before support for the aging legacy system ends in 2016.

Meanwhile, last month, Montgomery County joined Harris, Galveston, Brazoria and Fort Bend in becoming equipped for electronic filing of all civil records in district, county and probate courts. Fort Bend also has its justice of the peace courts equipped for e-filing, the only Houston-area county so far to do so.

The Texas Supreme Court started mandating e-filing in civil matters on a graduated schedule over a two-year period, beginning in January. In heralding this development, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said: "In the 21st century, we can no longer rely on an 18th- and 19th- century vision for our systems. E-filing will revolutionize our courts for the better."

Megan LaVoie, spokeswoman for the Office of Court Administration in Austin, said the state's long-term goal is to eliminate paper documents, but it will take time. Currently, the state's Judicial Committee on Information and Technology is looking into requiring that criminal cases be e-filed, and then moving to municipal court and justice-of-the-peace records, she said.

Keeping ahead of the curve, Montgomery County will start entering its criminal data into the system next month, even though it's not yet a state requirement. County officials hope to be finished with that data entry by the end of 2015.

By expediting the move to e-filing and replacing their outmoded computer system, Montgomery County officials believe they will be among the first who are ready for the coming "paperless" world.

Shipley said the new system, once complete, will provide instantaneous flow of real-time data whenever and wherever it's needed.

"In the past, we had three separate systems for courts, clerks and prosecutors that did not interface together. Our systems had been purchased so long ago that we had to do our own maintenance because the vendors had gone out of business," Shirley said.

Montgomery County's district clerk, Barbara Adamick, said the new system has an added security bonus, too. "If there is a catastrophic event like a courthouse fire, tornado or flood, we just have to go to another site to print our documents," she said, because the county's data is preserved on a back-up storage "cloud" that's off-site.

She said any electronic record that can be seen in her office will also be able to be viewed online by the public.

Montgomery County Sheriff's Capt. Peggy Frankhouser, said the new system being installed there has extra benefits for deputies, too. The system will allow deputies to communicate not only with their own agency but also with constables and municipal police during emergency situations.

Also, instead of having to drive to headquarters to enter crime reports into the computer, deputies will be able to write and file them from computers in their squad cars, she said.

"We also have a special crime analysis component that will even allow deputies in the field to link potential suspects in a crime," she said. "It's going to be a great help in reducing the amount of time it takes to put a case together."

Asst. District Attorney Phil Grant agreed, "It saves steps and time, such as by automatically generating notices to us, if a criminal case is approaching the speedy trial deadline."

Mark Turnbull, the county clerk, said the old system's computer software required multiple steps that had to be done manually. "The new Windows-based system will be much easier to train employees to use," he said.

Of course, Shirley expects to find glitches in the new system that will need to be worked out.

"Everybody always wants somebody to give them a black box, make it magic and then make it work," he said. "But it doesn't always happen exactly like that."

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