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Opinion: Dallas County, Texas, Lacks Accessible Courts Data

Dallas County does not have a comprehensive, centralized, publicly available data source for its courts, making it harder to run down basic information about everything from law enforcement to evictions.

by Dallas Morning News Editorial Board / July 1, 2020
Shutterstock/Zolnierek

(TNS) — If there is one thing that the modern economy has made clear it is that data is crucial.

 

Unless there are good data sources, it’s hard to hold public institutions accountable. And unless those data sources enable a variety of information to be cross-referenced, it’s hard to believe institutions are making smart decisions about problems facing our society.

So it is particularly troublesome that Dallas County does not have a comprehensive, centralized, publicly available data source for its courts. This makes it harder to run down basic information about everything from law enforcement to whether evictions are being handled properly during the pandemic.

It didn’t have to be this way. Back in 2012, the county partnered with Tarrant and Travis counties on the TechShare.Court project. After shelling out more than $25 million for custom-built software, the project was put on pause in February 2019. At its best, that project wouldn’t have given us everything we needed, but the hope was that it would have helped. Nonetheless, now here we are, well into the mess that is 2020 without the datasets we need.

Dallas County courthouse employees still work off of decades-old computer systems. That’s one reason why reporters have to ask for courthouse data through public records requests, an inefficient process at best.

Other Texas counties are much better. Harris County’s Justice of the Peace courts have a Public Data Extract Service available online. The website allows people to download large quantities of data. As of this year, January Advisors, a data science consulting firm, tracks evictions in Harris County, as well.

Dallas County has a court portal, but it requires users to have specific information — a defendant’s name, case number or other material that makes searching unnecessarily difficult. Even veteran users understand that getting every search field just right doesn’t guarantee a good result or the ability to extract bulk data.

While there are nonprofits and academic institutions that gather data, their research only goes so far. For example, the Eviction Lab is a great resource for people trying to better understand the eviction process, but the researchers have 49 other states to document, and it is impossible for them to closely track every county or city in the country.

So, instead of leaving the public to feel as though a search for courthouse data is akin to scratching around on your hands and knees searching a dark room for any sign of light, Dallas County should establish a genuinely functional online database.

In our view, any such project should not be linked to TechShare. There is no need for Dallas County to reinvent the wheel with specialized software. If other counties in Texas can update their systems smoothly, surely so can our county.

A publicly available database that allows civilians to see what court cases have been filed and the demographics for the parties involved would go a long way toward accountability and ensuring that public institutions serve the public interest.

©2020 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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