Smith County is nearing complete implementation of a computer network designed to streamline processing of a person’s legal documents from arrest through the court system.
The county began to slowly implement a new program, Odyssey Data System, last year after its old program, Ableterm, was discontinued.
Terri Gerber, application services manager for the county’s IT Department, said Odyssey is a major improvement over the former database system.
“Ableterm ran on an old IBM AS400, an old IBM …” she said. “The structure of the database was all text. You could only enter stuff. … Ableterm was a simple system. The Odyssey program gives you more functionality because it’s a contemporary platform.”
The new system, however, has a multitude of add-ons and has the capability to connect an array of information, including court documents, medical records, probation compliance and fee payments and even commissary for inmates.
Ms. Gerber said the county implemented the system for civil cases last July and expects to go live with the system for criminal cases in February.
She said civil cases are simpler than criminal cases and, generally, have less paperwork. The network primarily had to connect the clerks, where civil cases are filed, to the courts.
Managing criminal cases is a different animal.
“Criminal by comparison to civil is probably three to four times as much as the civil cases,” Ms. Gerber said. “You have a lot of different offices. You have more than the clerks and the court. You have the jail, the district attorney and adult probation. You have all of those different aspects of the court justice system.”
The databases are in place, and the county soon will begin testing to go live on Feb 1. Staff training will begin in January.
Once staff gets comfortable with using the system, the county will begin adding on more software features. There is no set timeline for integrating additional features or guarantee that all will be eliminated. Ms. Gerber said the goal is to become more efficient in the long term but that comes with a learning curve.
“You have to get started first, and once you get over the hump of learning to do things and get comfortable with it, then you go into this cruise mode,” she said. “Then there’s a new feature that comes along, and then you’re back up a hill.”
A spinoff of the conversion to Odyssey is a court automation pilot program.
The goal is to digitize the court process and link all documents for a case into one file, including motions, discovery, court orders and more.
“It’s supposed to speed up time and be more efficient, but there’s technical challenges with the judges learning new systems and learning a new medium,” Don Bell, Chief Technical Officer for the county, said.
Judges can digitally sign and approve documents, advancing them to the next stage in the judicial process. Attorneys also can e-file their lawsuits and motions with clerks electronically.
“We don’t call it paperless - we call it court automation, because we will never fully get rid of paper in all the courtrooms, but we try to minimize it,” Bell said. “We try to minimize people printing documents, signing them and then taking and scanning them back into the system.”
The program currently is in two courts: County Court At Law No. 3, presided over by the Honorable Floyd Getz, and the 7th District Court, presided over by the Honorable Kerry L. Russell. The program so far only applies to civil cases, because those were integrated last year.
Officials have not decided if the pilot program will expand to other courts.
The system isn’t without kinks that will need to be worked out before full implementation is a possibility.
Russell said the system makes searching through open cases easy without hunting down physical files, but there are kinks with reviewing complex court documents.
“What in the old days would have taken me five minutes to review took me about an hour, maybe an hour-and-a-half to do. … (but) from an economy of time standpoint it was not wasted at all, if we can figure out a better way to do those orders.
Getz said he could see the potential for the system, but there is a learning curve.
“At first it was taking five times longer to sign a document than it would for a piece of paper, but I have to take into account that once I push that button … it saves a lot of time for the court coordinators and the transfer of files,” he said. “When criminal comes along, that will be a huge technical challenge.”
The pilot court automation program won’t move forward until all the kinks are worked out, Ms. Gerber said.
“The courts are anxious to and want to try this, but we really emphasize this is a pilot project …” she said. “We need to wait until we at least get Odyssey up and running and people comfortable with it before we turn (the court automation project) into something. It’s a big effort, and it’s time consuming and takes a lot of resources.”
Another project on the horizon is a program to enable judges to digitally sign warrants remotely. The key, officials said, is making sure the documents stay secure.