Setting a Precedent

Tarrant County, Texas, district attorney uses enterprise service bus to eliminate paper.

by / July 6, 2006

It wasn't long ago that the Tarrant County, Texas, district attorney's office staffed multiple field offices with personnel expressly to shuttle court papers to the downtown Fort Worth office for court sessions.

Now nearly all court documents are shuttled by "the bus."

With the arrival of the enterprise service bus (ESB), and the corresponding electronic case filing system, the field offices have been eliminated. The bus handles nearly all case record transmissions electronically.

What Is the Bus?
The bus is the infrastructure that connects service-oriented architectures (SOA), which are commonly described as collections of loosely coupled, highly interoperable services built on open standards that can access data from a variety of sources, including databases and mainframes.

ESB is software architecture that acts as a shared message layer for connecting applications and services throughout an enterprise-computing infrastructure.

In practical terms, it allows autonomous groups, units of the Tarrant County justice community in this instance, to share information through one system.

"To provide that single face in an otherwise federated environment, you need infrastructure that solves that problem," said Hub Vandervoort, vice president of North American Field Operations for Bedford, Md.-based Sonic Software, which provided Tarrant County's ESB system.

"An ESB is meant to provide a uniform way of interconnecting those systems without hardwire technology in a way that matches the federated organizational model so there isn't one owner of the system," Vandervoort continued. "Just like the Internet, there's no one owner of the system, yet we can all collaborate on it. A portal connects into the ESB, and the ESB provides a distributed framework to connect each of the back-end databases that provide the information."

The ESB can access data from multiple sources, said Tarrant County CIO Steve Smith, and that's what makes it functional.

"Some information is in a mainframe, some is in a SQL server -- there's no telling where it could be -- but as a business process, you don't really care."

Stuart Ransom, public sector vice president for Sonic, said the beauty of the bus and SOAs is that they let the justice community develop and maintain their own systems while still communicating effectively.

"Their operational requirements are covered, but this then gives them the ability to communicate appropriately with the need to know across the justice enterprise. They retain ownership of their data, and they share with the proper level of security, permissions and access level across the enterprise."

System deployment began late in 2003 and will continue for another five years or so, as the county updates the jail's mainframe computer system. This major undertaking will probably triple the estimated $3.5 million spent so far, according to Smith.

Also in the offing is further development of an entire case-management system that includes mental health agencies and other county jail systems.

"In the long term, after we've handled the input process, we're going to begin with the case management; that's going to be much more problematic because if they're in the system they could have mental health [issues], they could have physical health [issues], they could have time they've served in county jail, they could be wanted in other places," Smith said. "There are a number of different parameters, so when we build a service tree for case management, it's going to be really interesting."

Business Process Revolution
"It's revolutionized the way we do business," said Miles Brissette, assistant district attorney for Tarrant County. "We were once a completely paper office. You had to have multiple copies of everything just to do anything."

The ESB also reduced the backlog of suspects awaiting trial, thereby saving the county money.

Before the system, information collected by the arresting law enforcement agency had to be re-entered multiple times during the justice cycle, Brissette said. Now it's entered by the arresting agency, and then made available throughout prosecution. The process eventually will extend to the prison system.

"The initial information is entered once by the arresting agency, and then we build upon it," Brissette said. "They lay the foundation, and we start building a house around it."

The district attorney's office processes approximately 60,000 cases annually, and about 95 percent of those are now brought electronically. Until two years ago, they were all brought with paper documents.

Prior to the ESB deployment, the average felony case arrived at the district attorney's office in paper form after being typed into a computer system by the arresting law enforcement agency, then printed out for distribution.

"If you were a detective, you would submit a copy to me," Brissette said, "and I would have to read through it all, make a decision and then fill out cover sheets, re-creating a lot of the work that you did by putting charges together."

Brissette would then give a hard copy to a secretary, who would re-enter it into a mainframe; then it would go to grand jury secretaries to be copied and redistributed. It would end up with a grand jury attorney for grand jury presentation, and then to a trial attorney.

"Each time this move or this exchange of paper files took place, somebody had to be paid to move it," Brissette said.

A New Process
That new process allows prosecuting attorneys to easily access case data anywhere.

"Now we just give them their laptop and say, 'Go have fun in court,'" Brissette said. "It really does make prosecution easy. You're not tied to your desk anymore as a prosecutor, and you're not burdened with taking files to and from the house."

Prosecutors, however, aren't the only ones to benefit from the system. The defense is relieved from making copies of documents by receiving electronic access to those documents from the district attorney's office. Defense attorneys can access information through a portable data transport device called a token.

Previously the defense had to copy all these files, Brissette said. "Somebody would have to go pull the files for the defense attorney; somebody would have to OK and make sure there was nothing the defense couldn't see, then give it to them and let them go file it."

Now the district attorney, the district clerk, county clerk, the juvenile justice department and many city police agencies are on the system. Police agencies that have signed on can access the system from a police car laptop with a Microsoft electronic authentication certificate.

The system provides access to Tarrant County criminal history records, including

mug shots, defendant demographics (name, race, gender, etc.), criminal incidents and crimes presented for prosecution. The county is in the process of including the sheriff's office and the jail system, according to Smith.

"Our sheriff, when we finally have him fully converted, should see the most impact because he'll be moving off a mainframe, flat-file type of delivery service. That will allow him much more flexibility in keeping up with prisoners in the system," Smith said. "Our jail system is one of our primary drivers. Once we have tied that into our court system, then the rest is downhill. We'll be doing that over the next two years."

The new system is not only time efficient, but also a big budget saver for the county, which would otherwise spend money for transit time in picking up documents and a $50 housing fee per arrestee awaiting trial in the county jail. According to Smith, the system has helped alleviate crowding in the county jail by 20 percent, and reduced booking time by approximately 35 percent.
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor