Court System Saves More Than Time

Washington state saves millions by automating its court scheduling.

by / March 31, 1997
You are a police officer, and today is supposed to be your day off. Instead, you are at the courthouse, waiting to testify. You arrived before 9 a.m., even though your case is not scheduled until 11. The prosecutor subpoenaed you early because he knows the defense attorney won't start plea-bargaining negotiations until she sees your face. The defense knows it's likely that the arresting officer won't show up because of scheduling conflicts. The defense can use a no-show to push the prosecutor into making a deal to avoid continuing the case, or worse, seeing it dismissed for lack of a witness.

It's now 1 p.m. You've missed a lunch date and a trip to the zoo with your son.

The attorneys are still talking.

The scene depicted is a daily occurrence in courthouses across the country. Almost everyone involved loses.

Officers must cancel personal plans to accommodate court hearings set on scheduled days off. Courts and prosecutors are unable to plan which cases will actually go to trial, and when. Police agencies incur huge overtime expenses. The only possible winners are criminal defendants -- they can skate free if their arresting officer doesn't make it to court.

Many courts attempt to coordinate officer schedules with planned court appearances. In most cases, this coordination is done manually from pages of printed schedules. Often, these schedules are badly out of date.
But District Court No. 1, a traffic and misdemeanor court in Tacoma, Wash., has a better method. There, calendars are coordinated by computer via the court proceeding scheduling (CPS) system, provided by the state's Office of the Administrator for the Courts (OAC).

CPS has three components -- the court resource scheduling system (CRS); the law enforcement/court scheduling system (LECS); and the court proceeding scheduling process -- all part of the District/Municipal Court Information System (DISCIS), a statewide case management system for the 185 courts of limited jurisdiction.

DISCIS, a component of the state's comprehensive judicial information system, runs on a mainframe at OAC's state capital headquarters in Olympia, 30 miles from Pierce County's courthouse. Pierce County court schedules, plus those for the county contingent of the Washington State Patrol and the Pierce County Sheriff's Office, are inputted onsite, then transferred by modem to a file server at OAC where it is uploaded into DISCIS.

When a trial or hearing date is needed, a "proceeding scheduling" screen is brought up on a court clerk's computer. DISCIS accesses both law enforcement and court schedules, determines the best dates for scheduling proceedings, then presents the results on a "court best date" screen.

The system begins searching two weeks from the current date, looking for matching dates up to 60 days beyond that time. Prospective dates are identified and rated from "most desirable" to "unacceptable." The clerk can see how many proceedings are already set at those times for a given judge. Usually, the machine hones in on periods the officer is already scheduled to be in court.

Creation of CPS began in August 1989 with funding from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC). Its stated purpose: reduce officer overtime through accurate, computerized scheduling and serve as a model program for other jurisdictions. Pierce County District Court No. 1 was offered the money to sponsor the scheduling system and serve as a pilot site. The court contacted OAC for technical assistance and counsel.

First envisioned as an isolated microcomputer system that would run only in Pierce County, court officials decided to increase benefits to other jurisdictions by making the scheduling system part of the DISCIS mainframe application. Through Microsoft, OAC contracted with Puget Sound Systems Group Inc. to design the law enforcement and court components of the system on Microsoft Access.

Once the system was designed, and data from the court, County Sheriff and the Washington State Patrol were blended into it, initial testing began in April 1991. Testing stopped when users discovered response times were unacceptably slow. It resumed several months later, producing responses in 30 seconds or less.

Overall, results were impressive. In July 1992, the court's CPS coordinator, Mark Shannon, told OAC that court appearances of 30 selected state troopers had been reduced 36 percent. Total overtime costs had been lowered 60 percent, and troopers were spending less time in court per appearance.

Shannon tracked the troopers' court appearances over two, eight-month periods -- one before implementation, the other after. Though 55 trials had been set for both periods, appearances dropped from 25 to 16 and overtime hours descended from 94 to 38. These figures covered only one courtroom -- all five courtrooms in Pierce County District Court No. 1 now use the court proceeding scheduling system.

"District Court presented this program to us five years ago," said Trooper Robert C. Orth, the State Patrol's Pierce County training and court liaison officer, and the person responsible for maintaining state patrol data in LECS, the system's law enforcement component. "Studies had shown it might cut back overtime. [Scheduling officers on days off] used to be very frequent -- about two out of every five. [Now] only one out of every 10 or 15 is scheduled on a day off."

It's a win/win/win situation, according to Orth. Time spent per appearance has been reduced because "subpoenas now say 11:00 instead of 9:00, and because attorneys know the trooper will be there." The State Patrol benefits because of reductions in overtime and/or time lost from patrol. Troopers benefit because they don't have to give up scheduled free time.

Pierce County Sheriff's Office Assistant Lorraine Larson, responsible for maintaining the sheriff's portion of LECS, agreed. She has seen subpoenas sent to deputies while on vacation, scheduled for training or involved in other activities that are either difficult or impossible to reschedule. She said LECS' potential benefits are great, though "the individual officer won't know it works until it doesn't."

In Okanogan County, Wash., where sheriff's deputies guard the safety of 37,000 people in an area 2.5 times the size of Delaware, the sheriff was introduced to the system by County District Court Administrator Renee Townsley. Using written copies of officer schedules, her court had tried, unsuccessfully, to respond to the sheriff's concerns about overtime expense, officers set to appear when they were on vacation and the bending of manpower resources that occurred when officers were pulled into the county seat from far-flung corners of their jurisdiction.

"I had been interested in (CPS) since the pilot," Townsley said. "I contacted the state patrol and the county sheriff and asked them if they had heard of this system and if they planned to use it. I felt it could accommodate law enforcement and mean less work for the court."

LECS is provided to requesting agencies by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC). Dave Miller, who oversees LECS and its distribution, "encourages agencies to encourage their courts" to implement it. Particularly useful to police agencies with 20 or more officers, Miller noted the system is "pretty intuitive," that training time is minimal and that users are supported by OAC's Help Center, which is always available during working hours for trouble shooting. Best of all, it is offered free to member agencies.

OAC will make CPS, the court component, available to any court in Washington state. LECS is now distributed to 15 law enforcement agencies. Useful as a stand-alone scheduling tool, it can, among other things, create schedules, build templates and produce scheduling graphs. But most agencies acquire the software to reduce overtime expense. That goal cannot be fully realized until courts in those jurisdictions begin using their piece of the scheduling system.

Though savings to law enforcement has been the main focus, courts can also realize monetary benefits. Those that manually coordinate schedules will save personnel time. Every case disposed instead of continued results in a more manageable court calendar down the road. As is the case with any public agency, time and effort saved translates to money not spent.

Now fully operational in only one Washington jurisdiction, the system's potential is evident. Nationally, agencies with 100 or more officers report median overtime expenditures of $2,000 per officer per year, much of it due to court appearances. U.S. law enforcement officers now number nearly a million, not including part-timers. If agencies realized even a fraction of the 60 percent savings in overtime costs experienced by the state patrol in Pierce County, millions of taxpayer dollars could be saved.

In an article about the future of court technology published early last year, Erin Sullivan, MIS director for the Unified Court System of the state of New York, noted, "Networking is the baseline enabling technology which provides access to information and tools at individual and group levels."

The CPS system is networking at its best. Not only is information exchanged, it is used to benefit all involved entities. With CPS, two large components of the American criminal justice system -- law enforcement and courts -- can function more efficiently, and save time and money.

On top of that, police officers and their families can make plans for a day off with good assurance it won't be spoiled by a last-minute subpoena.

A freelance writer, Alison Sonntag has held professional positions in Washington courts since 1978. Currently, she is the chief deputy clerk of Kitsap County. She can be reached at 360/876-7164. E-mail: .


PROBLEM/SITUATION: Police officers appearing in court on their days off cost law enforcement agencies millions of dollars in overtime pay.

SOLUTION: An automated system reconciles planned court appearances with officers' work schedules.

JURISDICTIONS: District Court No. 1, Tacoma, Wash.; Washington State Office of the Administrator for the Courts; Washington State Patrol; Pierce County Sheriff's Office, Wash.; Pierce County District Court No. 1; Washington Traffic Safety Commission; Okanogan County, Wash.; Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs; New York.

VENDORS: Microsoft, Puget Sound Systems Group Inc.

CONTACT: Marc Shannon, Pierce County District Court, Tacoma, Wash., 206/596-6601.

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Alison Sonntag Special to Government Technology