Judges argue that the software is ineffective and could cause all sorts of problems, including losing inmates in jail.
(TNS) -- After more than four years and at least $7 million spent, Dallas County is poised to begin rolling out a new computer system to handle criminal court cases.
The only problem: No one who will use it wants it.
In a rare display of unity, all 31 criminal court judges in Dallas County have come out against the new system. They argue that the software is ineffective and could cause all sorts of problems, including losing inmates in jail. A letter signed by the judges, the county clerk and the district clerk implores the county commissioners to cut their losses and buy a different program.
State District Judge Robert Burns recently called the county’s system of choice “not ready for prime time.”
“How much more money are they going to pour down a rat hole?” he said. “It’s time to change direction.”
But some county officials say killing the project now would be a mistake. They say it’s near completion, within budget and gives judges what they originally asked for — all claims that the judges dispute.
The Commissioners Court, which appears split on how best to proceed, likely will discuss the issue in coming weeks. But Commissioner Theresa Daniel, who chairs the county’s information technology committee, said she’s “inclined to stay the course.”
The new software would replace an existing case management system that handles everything related to a criminal charge, from the time a defendant is booked into jail to when he goes to court.
Courthouse regulars say the current setup is riddled with glitches: paperwork that’s missing, inmates stuck in jail when they’re eligible for release on bail, arrest warrants that may be going unserved.
“I cannot tell you how many times I open up a case and I’ve got some Joe Blow who is not my defendant — his paperwork,” defense attorney Bret Martin said. “It happens all the time.”
In 2012, to address complaints about the current system, the county teamed up with Tarrant and Travis counties and hired a tech company to build a replacement.
The next year, that company, American Cadastre, told the counties it was expanding quickly and needed to raise money. It offered to sell the software code it was developing to the counties for $5.6 million. When the program was done, the counties could make money by licensing the software across the state.
The counties took the deal. Dallas County paid its share, $2.6 million, after its staff concluded that American Cadastre was “financially healthy.” Less than a year later, the company went bankrupt. And, left with incomplete code, the counties hired former workers from the company to finish the job.
Last month, judges and courthouse workers had a chance to try out the new system. The demonstration alarmed them. The software didn’t seem finished, the judges said, and it didn’t meet their needs.
They began collecting signatures on their letter to the commissioners. “We did not see a functioning product during the demonstration,” it said.
Last Thursday, the day before the letter was sent, the developers announced that they were done with the first version of the product.
The judges and commissioners are at odds over where to go next.
Judges want Dallas County to ditch development of the software and buy a program that counties across the country — and Dallas County’s own civil courts — already use. They say that program, called Odyssey, is better and will be cheaper in the long run.
Burns, who called the decision a “no-brainer,” said he’d like to see a public comparison of the two options. “There is smoke-filled room maneuvering going on, and the public and the taxpayers aren’t getting a fair shake here,” he said.
Commissioner Mike Cantrell said he was disappointed to hear the judges’ complaints. The goal, he said, was always to create a state-of-the-art system, one that was tailored to the judges’ specifications.
“What they asked us to build is what was built,” he said.
Not true, say the judges. Their fear, they say, is that if the county doesn’t change course, the new product will only lead to more of the old problems.
“This is one of those times when the entirety of the criminal courthouse is in agreement,” said criminal court Judge Tina Yoo Clinton. “That doesn’t happen a whole lot.”
©2015 The Dallas Morning News