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North Carolina Works to Digitize State Justice System

The "eCourts" initiative will allow certain services to be completed online, saving time and money for the state.

(TNS) -- It can appear the North Carolina justice system is choking on paper. Law and regulations mandating hard copies of documents involved in various legal transactions are being phased out in favor of electronic files on the law enforcement end of the process, and “eCourts,” an initiative by the state Administrative Office of the Courts that’s years in the making, should jumpstart the process for state courts.

The budget agreed to by Speaker of the House Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, provides $1.8 million in recurring funds for Fiscal Year 2015-16 and FY 2016-17 to do just that.

According to the AOC’s court information technology overview prepared in March, the vision for eCourts is to “deliver on expectations using existing tools, modernize applications,” create “virtual courthouses,” provide self-service options for the public, have “documents filed, retrieved and work-flowed electronically,” provide “new payment options, including credit cards and online payments” and “improved access to data and analytical capabilities.”

Aspects of the completed system are already in use, including online payments, efiling for civil and non-criminal matters, access to criminal court forms and case information, and warrants, citations, summonses and orders for arrest.

Processes in development include a data warehouse and DWI reporting, a new criminal and infraction search, evidence discovery automation for audio and video, an electronic information management system and a mobile eCitation module for law enforcement.

Funds earmarked for a chronically underfunded area of the state justice system – private-appointed counsel for indigent defendants – are at an increased level from FY 2014-15 but won’t make up the running budget deficit within the program, nor increase pay for attorneys.

In counties without public defenders, like Lenoir, private attorneys volunteer to assume those duties on a rotating basis and at a rate significantly reduced from what they’d earn if a defendant hired them instead of being assigned them in court.

“I enjoy helping people, and I think it helps the court system,” attorney Mark Herring said of the process in March 2013. “I just think it’s the right thing to do. But, definitely, it’s a significant reduction in pay if you compare it to a retained client. That’s the case in every state and with the federal government.”

State Indigent Defense Services stated in its February report to the General Assembly it would take $9.6 million over the biennium to make sure attorneys were paid on time and raised PAC rates by $5 an hour. However, the budget agreement has $7.8447 million designated for private counsel over the biennium in recurring funds.

In prior years, the money runs out weeks before the end of the fiscal year, meaning significant delays in payment. According to the conference committee report, the funding – 5.5 percent more in FY 2016-16 and 7.2 percent more in 2016-17 than current levels – should cover payments through to the end of the fiscal years.

And in an attempt to alleviate the burden on State Crime Lab scientists and speed up evidence processing, the budget allocates $581,621 to hire six new lab technicians to handle non-scientific duties. In a related measure, DNA evidence is to be collected from all suspected violent felons at the time of their arrest. A total of $547,030 over the biennium is expected to cover one forensic scientist position and three information processing technicians to handle the evidence, plus an additional $140,790 for supplies and other needed materials.

The Senate passed the budget shortly before 3:30 p.m. Tuesday on an exclusively party-line vote, 33-16, with Sen. David Curtis, R-Lincoln, on an excused absence.

The House failed to suspend the rules Tuesday and force an early vote, so there will be a first vote sometime Thursday and a final vote at 12:01 a.m. Friday.

©2015 The Free Press (Kinston, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.