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Can Better Software Lead to Better Outcomes in Court?

That’s the question at the heart of the deployment of a new case management system by the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office. The agency’s CIO and an exec from Publicis Sapient talk about what is driving use of this new tool.

A silhouette of a gavel surrounded by blue lines of code. Black background.
When Mohammed Al Rawi started his job as CIO of the L.A. County Public Defender’s Office more than four years ago, he devoted himself to the study of COBOL, a computer language developed in the 1950s.

Such was the state of court technology that even the largest public defender’s office in the country — with about 100,000 clients annually — relied on the digital equivalent of Latin, and whose native speakers were retiring and starting to die out.

Al Rawi, however, needed to extract data from files maintained in COBOL to further the mission of helping defendants — more specifically, to help the court system see them as fully formed human beings instead of just people charged with crimes.

“We created a time machine that converted a 1960s data structure into a modern data structure,” he told Government Technology.

But he says things have improved since then thanks to better software, giving the office more power and more voice as it works toward shifting its focus when it comes to defendants.

A relatively new client case management system (CCMS) created by Publicis Sapient is helping the 700 or so attorneys who work for the public defender structure data around clients, painting what Al Rawi called a “holistic” view of people brought before judges.

“We don’t represent cases, we represent clients,” is how he puts it.

This particular tech deployment has resulted in a new online short from Publicis Sapient and Academy Award-winning documentarian Ben Proudfoot called “Forgiving Johnny.”

It tells how a man facing a 20-year sentence for assault of his brother-in-law received treatment and leniency after data searches via the new CCMS proved that he was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder, which under California law can lead to diversion programs instead of prison. The victim’s family did not want to press charges.

More than 160 million court records were digitized and organized in the new CCMS.

Information such as a defendant’s immigration and mental health status, prior arrests and convictions and experiences in the military are now digitally available to attorneys via the cloud-based tool.

That can not only save those lawyers from having to haul around so many files and boxes, but helps them “tell the story of the person [being represented] instead of focusing on the mistakes,” Al Rawi said. “You can get the full picture of a person.”

Not only that, he said, but the CCMS can spark more “collaboration” among those attorneys, who work in nearly 40 courtrooms across a vast, urban county whose traffic jams are legendary. And any time saved, he added, is more time attorneys can spend crafting stronger cases.

L.A. County’s CCMS is the first of its kind built on the cloud-based Salesforce platform, said James Kessler, senior vice president at Publicis Sapient.

“It’s neither off the shelf nor custom. It’s the best of both worlds,” he said, adding that configurable platforms like Salesforce come “with a whole bunch of Lego blocks. Salesforce probably gets you 50 percent of the way there. We help stitch it all together.”

In his view, this deployment shows the opportunity for tech providers that want to serve the judicial system.

“There is a tremendous backlog of modernizations in all aspects of criminal justice,” Kessler said. “All these people need access to case information about people.”

As he put it, better digital organization provides more ability to analyze cases, with machine learning and artificial intelligence also promising to play vital roles.

That view would seem to mesh with efforts to build more diversion programs, understand how mental health influences crime and reduce recidivism — all issues that are gaining more attention from lawmakers and other creators of policy.

According to Al Rawi, the technology and the approach it enables already is making an impression among local politicians.

He said he has shown members of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors “10-year-snapshots” of constituents who have been arrested and whose charges we dropped.

“We are showing them there are people who can really be helped, who can go into a program, not a cage,” Al Rawi said.
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.