Full Court Press

Stanislaus County's Superior Court aggressively pursued information integration.

by / July 29, 2003 0
By the end of the year, Stanislaus County Superior Court will have a faster, cheaper, Web-based information system to help coordinate efforts of court personnel by collecting case information from the time a case is opened until the case is settled. The system also interfaces with the District Attorney's Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The court system was previously a hostage to the county's mainframe system, incurring maintenance fees of more than a $1 million per year. The county was making a killing off of the Court, according to Mike Tozzi, a Superior Court administrator.

"As a court, we were putting out a sizable sum of money -- and we had for years -- to the county, which made no commitment to upgrade the mainframe," Tozzi said. "They were just taking the money. We were a cash cow."

The mainframe system also kept the case process moving at a snail's pace, he said, which frustrated many court employees and adversely affected employees' morale and performance.

Tozzi said court clerks spent 3 to 4 minutes to update certain files when such updates should have taken 20 seconds, and tasks that should have required only 1 or 2 minutes were taking 5 to 7 minutes on the old mainframe.

Clerks now enjoy a response time for transactions of seconds instead of minutes.

Ditching the Mainframe
In 1999, the Superior Court began looking for alternatives to the mainframe.

"That's when we decided that if we do this, we were actually going to migrate off of the mainframe and take over every application the mainframe did for us," said Debbie Brasher, Superior Court technology manager. "I worked through my budget of what I could spend, and we were able to do it within that budget."

The cost of the migration was roughly $800,000, which depleted Brasher's budget. Ironically, soon after the Superior Court made its decision, the county announced it too would abandon the mainframe.

So far money and speed are the main differences between the mainframe and the new system.

"The new server-based environment cost the court a one-time charge of $650 to move all information to servers, and no ongoing cost other than regular maintenance on the servers, server licensing and two court programmers -- adding up to $300,000 a year," said Stephen Coty, president of the Engineering Network Consulting Group (ENCG), which helped the court develop the system.

Instead of relying on county mainframe staff for support, the Superior Court hired its own staff programmers. The new platform's maintenance costs are a fraction of what they were. It used to take 10 programmers -- both from the county and those hired on a contractual basis -- to maintain the old system. Now it takes two programmers. A goal to reduce the response time for queries to 20 seconds was set, and met.

"We're a lot happier now," Tozzi said. "We have speed and performance, and we're our own boss."

Both Tozzi and Brasher credit ENCG for working with Superior Court staff to make the transformation a team effort.

"We haven't been disappointed in anything they've done," Brasher said. "They have resources that amaze me. They are not a vendor that says, 'Sure, we can do justice interoperability. Here's our system, bye.'" Brasher said. "This is more of a consulting system."

Made to Order
The new system assures a wide variety of Superior Court staff access to a quicker, more streamlined flow of case reports via the Web.

"We are able to give all of our justice partners access via an IP address, where before they had to be on the mainframe to access the system," Brasher said. "The clerks find it faster because they can do a lot with their mouse now. The mainframe was totally restrictive from using a mouse."

When a 911 call comes in, for example, a dispatcher writes up a report on that call, and if a police officer is involved, he or she also writes up a report. Those reports go to the Sheriff's Office, and then to the District Attorney's Office. It is then up to the District Attorney to decide to file a complaint or sit on the reports until more evidence is collected. The District Attorney may hold onto the reports for up to one year until prosecutors have sufficient evidence to file.

With the new system, that information is easily accessible online.

Once the District Attorney's Office determines there is sufficient evidence to file a complaint, it files the necessary paperwork, which is integrated with the Superior Court's system. Each case is given a number by which it can be tracked for the remainder of its life.

Brasher said outside analysts who evaluated the system were impressed by the new system's obtainable source code and functionality.

"They thought it was user-friendly," Brasher said. "They saw the speed, and they liked the way we had laid it out."

The system handles cases from any division in the court, whether it's traffic, probate or small claims.

"It spans all the different divisions, and the only difference between the divisions is a screen making it easier for a certain division to use," Brasher said, noting the quickened process of entering traffic information, which was previously a nightmare because of the number of cases entered.

The system also allows for cross-references between courts, allowing personnel to access any information on an individual in the system regardless of which court possesses the information. Previous stovepiping of information didn't allow for such easy access.

"That has helped us cut down on lawsuits and potential problems," Brasher said, citing that police officers now have easy online access to restraining orders. "They don't have to wait for a fax or an e-mail to them to let them know there's a restraining order when they're about to walk into a domestic violence situation."

Brasher said she evaluated many case management systems, and the Superior Court's system was developed with an eye toward expansion.

"There were so many things we considered when we started," she said. "We kept thinking it could be global some day. I wasn't thinking, 'Stanislaus County doesn't do it that way, so we don't need that.' I was thinking a lot more globally."

That's nothing new in Stanislaus County. It was one of the first counties to consolidate its Superior and Municipal courts in the early 1990s -- even before state legislation mandated such consolidation.
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor