A Smart Tool for Courtrooms

In Allegheny County, court reporters are finding ways to work with technology.

by / September 30, 1996
Court reporters have a tough job. Just take for example the reporters who work for Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas in Pittsburgh, Penn. In the recent past, it was quite common for a reporter to spend three or four days working on a single case. To complete the case, the reporter was required to sit in one place, type accurate notes, work up to five hours at a time without a break, go home and start over again. The physical stress of having to sit in one place with a steady hand on the keyboard was known to take its toll.

"Many of our court reporters were ending up with physical ailments because of the intense nature of what they do," said Nancy Malia, supervisor of the audio control room in the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas. "We were just too overloaded with transcription work. That's when administration started looking for ways to solve the problem."

And solve it they did by opting to use CourtSmart, a unique digital audio transcription system. The system
is effectively changing the way court reporters get the job done. CourtSmart is developed and distributed by
Karri Technology Corp., and is slowly being implemented in courtrooms across the country.

The system digitally captures the spoken word on ultra-sensitive condenser microphones located at specific points in the courtroom, including the witness stand, bench or counsel table. Live audio is mixed into four separate audio channels, with a fifth composite channel providing a backup recording.

Once captured, audio is transmitted to a central control room where it is digitized by the CourtSmart audio servers and stored on hard disk and Digital Audio Tape (DAT). "Not only does the DAT store all proceedings, but it can be used by courts to retrieve past proceedings," said Andy Treinis, executive vice president of Karri Technology. "One DAT is equivalent to 100 to 200 audio cassette tapes. It costs $7 for a DAT tape vs. $100 to $200 for cassettes."

Instead of sitting in the courtroom, court reporters monitor proceedings from a central control room. For every four courtrooms, one reporter is required to sit and monitor all of the activities through the aid of a closed-circuit television. The system operator is able to add "tags" (text notes) to identify speakers, events or captions.

In Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, Malia said they have five reporters working between the monitors and the transcription cases. "We don't have to have one person per room," she said. "Now we have one person watching four rooms. Things do get hectic as that person has to caption all cases, get a recording up and going, shut other recordings off and fly between four rooms. It takes a lot of concentration and organizational skills. But needless to say, the cost-savings based on five people being able to handle monitoring and transcribing is huge."

"You're looking at an investment of $15,000 in equipment and maintenance vs. paying a $47,000 salary for each reporter," said Douglas Leonard, principle of the Pittsburgh, Penn.-based Miando Group, and ex-administrator of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County. "In order to cover four courtrooms you need only one person, and this total cost is roughly $60,000. That's a heavy return on your investment."

The best part of the system is the resulting accuracy added to the transcription process. Transcription doesn't have to be taken as the proceedings occur, which means reporters can rewind tapes to check what they've just heard. "First of all, it takes the human factor out of the recording process," explained Leonard. "I've seen realtime demos and watched reporters miss a word or words.

"The proceedings being recorded and digitized are stored right to hard disk, which allows somebody to make sure the integrity of the records are maintained. And it really takes the pressure out of taking records and allows the person to concentrate on what they're hearing."

Malia agrees with Leonard. She said, "It's much easier to transcribe cases this way as opposed to taking two or three hours of proceedings without a break, and it's a much more productive way to do the job. In the past, it wasn't unusual to sit in on a three-day trial that may never be appealed and may never have anyone request the transcripts. You end up wasting your talents, energy and production. This way, we only concentrate on what is appealed and everything else is recorded and available on tape for future reference."

The digitization of the audio also makes it easy to tell who's speaking, which can be very difficult on traditional audio tape. Malia explained that, with digital tape technology, voices can be isolated. "Different voices can be turned on or off, or if someone is talking over another person, you can isolate a voice and listen to it and cut to the other voice. Of course, the crispness of the audio makes it easier to hear as well."

Stereo speakers help the process by separating the voice by earphone. Reporters are able to visually note who and where the person is in the room and distinguish who is talking by certain identifiable tones either heard more, or less, in each ear. "We also use forms and ask participants to identify themselves," said Malia. "In Allegheny this has been made easier because of the full cooperation of the people involved. We've been fortunate because people are very willing to help obtain a good record. It makes monitoring go smoothly and allows the equipment to do what it's supposed to do."

Once the audio is stored on the hard drive it is available to anybody or any client who works on the LAN. Session lists are loaded onto a retriever where they can be viewed on the end user's screen. Users can select all, part or multiple sessions for the server to upload from the DAT or CD-ROM and download right onto their computer. Once downloaded the user can opt to review it, transcribe it or perform a high-speed reproduction onto a regular cassette.

"There are many inherent advantages in this kind of system," said Treinis. "The audio is available for anyone -- from an attorney to a judge to a jury -- to play back. For example, if a judge wants to hear proceedings in his or her chambers, he or she can upload the DAT and play a piece of audio."

As is the case with most automation processes, jobs often change and resources are allocated in different ways. CourtSmart shifts the work and changes a court reporter's job description. Malia has enthusiastically embraced the technology. "I feel what I'm doing is still the work of a court reporter," she said. "I'm just doing it a little differently to keep pace with technology.

"I relish the change and want the opportunity to do interesting things with computers. Instead of sitting in a court and writing hearings all day -- the majority of which may never be appealed -- I am being more productive and efficient with my use of time and labor than I was before."

The bottom line, as with most automation projects, is taxpayer dollars and the allocation thereof. CourtSmart offers a cost-effective advantage over traditional methods. "Taxpayer courts have to be efficient," said Treinis. "Judges are starting to ask reporters why they are so far behind on their transcript work. But there are more and more cases, a huge backlog and rising costs. Reporters are making a lot of money and our taxes aren't going up proportionately. The biggest single source of expenditure is labor. We have to look to ways to automate and make jobs more efficient. That's what CourtSmart is all about."

Michelle Gamble-Risley is the publisher of California Computer News. E-mail: < mrisley@ccnmag. com >.

For court reporters,
confronting the
issue of new
technology in the
courtroom can be
downright scary.
But in Allegheny
County, court
reporters are
finding ways to
work with
technology and
keep up with
the times.