Justice of the Peace Wired into County Case Management

Harris County justice of the peace courts have been connected to the county's case management system, providing greater efficiency for the independent courts.

by / May 31, 1996
It used to take a good eight hours to compile and print a traffic court balance sheet report, which shows payments and outstanding debts. The old computer system would sometimes jam because there were too many files for it to handle, and employees would have to halt the process and sometimes start over. Printouts sometimes included data from other documents unintentionally intermingled with a letter or report.

But a new connection between Harris County, Texas, justice of the peace courts and the county's court management system has reduced traffic court's periodic balance sheet compiling to just 30 minutes. "It used to take all day," said Kim Evett, a court clerk for the Harris County Justice of the Peace traffic court. The court management system is a great improvement for the office, she said, especially because it enables users to move quickly through screens of court data stored on a mainframe.

"Now we can do multiple tasks," Evett said. Several sessions can be pulled up simultaneously, which helps when someone calls the court to ask about a particular case. "I don't have to get all the way out" of the files being worked on when the query comes in, Evett said.

Connecting the justice of the peace courts to Harris County's main court management system is a significant step in integrating courts in the area, as justice of the peace courts here have a long history of autonomy from county superior courts. Originally set up during Texas' frontier days, justice of the peace courts were located in rural areas so locals didn't have to travel all the way to the nearest city to access the legal system or be charged with crimes and tried. Judges and courts were pretty much on their own.

Today, the justice of the peace courts follow state laws and court procedures, but retain some autonomy from other county courts in funding and court rules. The 16 justice of the peace courts in Harris County -- which is now primarily urban and includes Houston -- now handle low-level misdemeanors, such as traffic violations or bounced checks.

Evett's traffic court office was connected last November to the county's existing Justice Information Management System (JIMS), which stores and distributes case information for the county's criminal courts, district attorney, justice of the peace and other parts of the local judicial system.

The system's first version was created in 1976, when the superior and other courts were outgrowing a mainframe, flat file system with green-screen dumb terminals. JIMS has been upgraded over the years, and area justice of the peace courts are being connected to this system through the rest of this year. Bay Networks routers have been installed in the justice of the peace courts to connect them to JIMS, which now runs a mainframe database with over 330 million records. The system also has connections to state criminal history databases to provide disposition information.

JIMS is distributed to court sites mainly through a network called the Justice Internet, or J-NET, a network installed around Houston in 1990. Most of the court buildings are in the city, with the exception of justice of the peace courts, which are located throughout the county. Justice of the peace courts are connected to JIMS as a wide area network, which over time is being converted to fiber-optic lines.

JIMS is a client/server system running several applications. It includes case data, including court schedules, case history, and dispositions. The disposition of a case is provided to the state for inclusion in criminal history databases.

The justice of the peace courts were connected to the county's main court management system because further upgrades to their legacy system weren't possible, said Harry Leverette, information resources manager for the Harris County courts. "The problem was so urgent that it required a new court management system" for justice of the peace courts, he said. "It was not possible to add more hard drives."

The November integration was a major step for Harris County courts. There are advantages to integrating justice of the peace courts into the larger county network in addition to avoiding redundancy. For example, if a justice of the peace judge issues a warrant, the data is loaded onto the JIMS database and can be accessed by the rest of the court system, including law enforcement officers. "It not only enables an update of a warrant, but the district attorney can send e-mail to prosecutors staffing remote court sites," Leverette said.

Another advantage is the potential to collect more revenue from people paying off their citations. The justice of the peace court jurisdictions are based on geography, and a person getting a speeding ticket would have to go to the court in that area to pay the fine. With the integrated system, a speeder can pay in any of the courts.

Until recently, local justice of the peace courts were isolated and couldn't query each other's dockets and records. This meant that people with situations in more than one court, such as speeding tickets, would have to contact each separately to find information, such as schedules and the status of cases.

In the future, the county may run videoconferencing through the network. Courts located on one side of the county have more cases than less populated areas, leading to disparities in case loads. If video is run through the network, justice of the peace judges could preside remotely and help even out dockets in the system.

Another possibility is that the calendar part of JIMS could be made available online through the Internet or other remote access. This could help reduce calls from people asking about scheduling and routine court information.