Connecting the Courts

The Judicial Network Project makes Michigan roads safer.

by / September 3, 2003
A small percentage of lousy drivers make the roads dangerous for everyone else.

In Michigan, drivers with suspended licenses kill an average of 130 drivers per year, according to a Detroit News analysis.

Finding these drivers and keeping them off the road is not easy, but there is hope. A Michigan computer system linking the state courts' 41 case management systems could aid the process.

The intent of the Judicial Network Project is to improve the criminal history reporting process by connecting case management systems -- most of which are run by local municipalities or counties -- and eliminate archaic paper processes.

The project uses federal grant funds and money from the State Judicial Technology Innovation Fund to develop a statewide judicial network that uses the local government extranet telecommunication services from Michigan's Department of Information Technology.

"Now, because there are different systems in different locations, a judge in one county or court may not know that the person before him also has a pending traffic ticket elsewhere," said Marcus Dobek, director of judicial information systems for the Michigan Supreme Court. "There has been truly no connectivity with these remote entities within the state."

In 2001, the tragic case of a 27-year-old Michigan driver who ran a red light and killed an elderly man illustrated the importance of such connectivity. After the crash, the driver had two other major incidents before being convicted of manslaughter in the elderly driver's death. He was sentenced to one year in jail, and his driving privilege was revoked until 2006.

When he got out of jail, he applied for -- and received -- a driver's license. The Michigan Department of State, the agency responsible for issuing drivers' licenses and ID cards, wasn't aware of the sentence.

"The Judicial Network Project will impact a lot of aspects of criminal history information," said Michigan Chief Justice Maura D. Corrigan. "It's going to let the courts, the secretary of state and the Michigan State Police communicate more effectively what the dockets are throughout the state."

Corrigan said there are 241 trial courts in the state, 11 of which still lack computers. The number of trial courts without computers is down from a couple of years ago, and the state hopes all counties will be connected to the judicial network by the end of 2004.

Corrigan said the court previously transmitted conviction data to the Secretary of State's Office by paper or magnetic tape.

"Once a week the court would take the conviction data and mail it to the secretary of state, and that's how we were telling them X drunk driver was convicted on X date," she said. "If that driver got on the road and got arrested somewhere else on a drunk driving charge, they wouldn't know about the recent conviction, because it was making its pokey way onto the secretary's computer."

Growing Network
The project's first phase provided computer equipment and software to circuit and probate courts in the 25 largest counties and two smaller counties. This simplified electronic reporting of adult and juvenile felony criminal case dispositions to the Michigan State Police repository. Implementation covered 86 percent of the state's criminal caseload.

Subsequent implementations provided hardware and software for most courts -- circuit, district, probate -- and brought the number of linked counties to 35 of the state's 83. Dobek said the courts are taking advantage of an existing infrastructure -- put in place by the Department of Management and Budget -- for law enforcement and other functions of government.

"What we're doing with the [Judicial] Network Project is leveraging that connectivity to bring the courts into the state's network," Dobek said. "Now that we have this connectivity, we're looking at [connecting] a whole host of applications that were paper or tape."

The state police have an inquiry system that "feeds" the federal government and the state, Dobek said. The Court feeds information through the inquiry system's disposition component and the Department of State component, which to date, has been done by submitting paper documents. The network will make paper submissions obsolete.

"We will now be able to grab this information with the network overnight as opposed to waiting for an interval that's convenient to a court to send it to us," Dobek said.

Centralized Database
The Judicial Network Project will also provide a centralized data warehouse where information can be stored and accessed.

"We're trying to leverage the state's data warehouse to move data from the respective court systems into the data warehouse, so we're able to find information about individual people or defendants across those 41 systems," Dobek said.

The data warehouse will give the state a two-pronged approach at improving the bad driver situation: more timely submission of information in electronic form and the ability to determine if a driver has pending tickets, according to Dobek.

"If I'm getting dispositional information from the courts in a timely manner, we're going to improve that reporting mechanism on those bad drivers," he said, noting that measuring success so far is difficult because the network is still being developed, but gutting the paper-based system is a big improvement.

"When you look at where we were before ... there were counties submitting paper, and we're talking about some of the larger counties in Michigan," he said. "Any time you have a paper-based system, you have no connectivity to the people submitting that information, and obviously information is not getting to the repositories in a timely fashion."

Dobek said when the system is complete, the secretary of state will receive crime reports from all over the state more efficiently. "It really improves accessibility and submission. The submission methodology is improving because it's more timely and it's electronic. The inquiry capability is improved because you've got connectivity now."

Getting all of Michigan on board is an ongoing process as Dobek and his staff evaluate the needs of each county.

"Some people have protocol dumb terminals at their desks, [and] they need a PC," he said. "We're evaluating if there's a PC on the desktop to access these systems. We're evaluating the cable requirements in each county."

When the network is completely in place, remote counties will query the system for individuals' criminal history or driving records. The hope is that a few bad drivers will be taken off the roads because of it.
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor