The following is an excerpt of the report. The full report is available at
Texas courts are seeking efficient and effective ways to improve the delivery of indigent defense services as set out in the Fair Defense Act of 2001. In 2004, the Office of Court Administration, Task Force on Indigent Defense, applied for and was awarded funding to test information-sharing technologies as a strategy for helping counties reduce costs and improve efficiency in court processing. The research was sponsored by the State Justice Institute and implemented in partnership with the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University. Tony Fabelo, Ph.D., national criminal justice consultant and former director of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Counsel, served as an advisor on the project.
Criminal case processing depends on a variety of local actors: judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, law enforcement officers, county officials and court clerks. Most counties rely on the physical transfer of defendant records from one office to another. Where automated file management systems are available, they tend to be designed for individual departments with limited ability for transferring information to other users electronically. Integrated information systems shared among multiple users offer a promising new approach for reducing costs, improving efficiency, and achieving better court processing outcomes for individual defendants and the criminal justice system as a whole.
The term “direct electronic filing” has been used to describe the transfer of motions and case documents from attorneys to the clerk of courts in civil cases. The concept is relatively new and has thus far not been extensively applied in the criminal arena. Unlike civil filings, many different departments within the local justice system are required to participate in the disposition of criminal cases. Furthermore, technology must be supported by complementary work practices. Therefore, the definition of direct electronic filing applied in this study is considerably broader than that used in the civil context.
Direct electronic filing in criminal cases is defined as a case management strategy to automate the flow of information for the screening and filing of criminal cases directly from law enforcement to the prosecutors to the court system. This strategy uses a variety of technologies to document case-related information, support decision-making, and monitor the progress of persons arrested through the system.
The chief advantages of direct electronic filing systems examined in this research were conceptualized around four key propositions:
Where all actors in the criminal justice system have current information on case status, they are able to make the most efficient use of time and limited resources, resulting in faster, more appropriate and more cost-effective case outcomes.
Electronic document management is an effective means of making current case information available to key actors, facilitating more informed and data-driven decision-making.
Automated information systems enhance public trust and confidence in the criminal processing system through early identification and release cases with insufficient evidence to file charges, faster defendant notification of charges, faster disposition, and more public information about the location and status of detained defendants.
Costs of implementing direct filing systems are offset by the value to the public through faster case disposition, reduced court dockets, fewer jail days, personnel relief for public offices, and less defendant time away from work and family.
OVERVIEW OF THE STUDY SITE
Harris, Bexar and El Paso counties agreed to allow the collection of data needed to conduct the research. These three counties were selected because their criminal case management systems each incorporate different degrees of inter-departmental integration. Analysis then focused on whether greater automation in local case processing procedures resulted in improved outcomes such as fewer days from arrest to filing, release and disposition. Findings were used to develop a replicable, evidence-based model of misdemeanor case processing which can be readily adapted and adopted by state courts in Texas and nationally.
Since the late 1970s Harris County has incrementally developed one of the most advanced and fully integrated justice processing systems in Texas and possibly the nation. The Justice Information Management System (JIMS) enables case-related information to be shared between county and municipal law enforcement officers, jail personnel, the district attorney’s office, the county clerk, magistrate courts, county and district courts, pre-trial services and the public. Within JIMS, a specialized sub-system known as the District Attorney Intake Management System (DIMS) links law enforcement and prosecutors for the initial case screening. This site offered the most advanced illustration of direct electronic filing automating information flow from law enforcement to the prosecutor and to the courts.
El Paso County
Beginning in 1994, the El Paso County District Attorney’s Office and the city of El Paso Police Department agreed to replicate components of the Harris County system linking law enforcement and prosecutors. Thus, while not all departments within the local justice system are able to share real-time case information, the El Paso County’s District Attorney Intake Management System (DIMS), supports information-sharing between police and the prosecutor. Since the sheriff’s office did not utilize DIMS, it was possible to compare case outcomes for similar types of cases in the same community handled with and without use of automated case processing.
The third study site, Bexar County, typifies the state of technology and integration in many Texas communities. While a common centralized data system is used by every department, there is limited functional integration or flexibility in what can be accessed by different offices. Information is conveyed between departments primarily in the form of pre-defined, standardized paper reports. Bexar County continues to incrementally upgrade departmental data management capabilities. As an example, the district attorney’s highly advanced case tracking system, implemented shortly after data collection for this study was concluded, is intended to improve the efficiency of case review and filing procedures within that office.
MODEL FEATURES OF DIRECT ELECTRONIC FILING SYSTEMS
Three two-day site visits were conducted to each study site during 2004 and 2005. Local criminal processing was observed, and face-to-face interviews were conducted with approximately 25 knowledgeable stakeholders in each county. During site visits, the characteristics of both work routines and technology were documented, and the best of these features were combined to create a single “ideal” model. Model processing features found to increase case processing efficiency included both technological and work solutions.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE STUDY
This research produced a number of insights regarding the quantifiable benefits resulting from even basic information-sharing technology linking prosecutors and law enforcement. Benefits were even greater as the scope of integration increased. A review of advantages resulting from the application of technology includes the following:
Early elimination of cases that cannot be successfully prosecuted.
Better case quality as prosecutors can alert law enforcement officers to missing information while witnesses are still present and the evidence is still fresh.
Faster transmission of offense reports from law enforcement to prosecutors.
Up to 18 percent fewer defendants held in pretrial detention and earlier release of those individuals that are detained.
Disposition of 15 percent to 25 percent of cases within three days of arrest.
Improved accuracy of charges through the use of online references to the criminal code and automated templates of charging documents. Defendants accused of similar crimes are treated more equally.
More efficient use of personnel, as the charging instrument can be prepared by a single assistant district attorney.
Substantial cost savings to counties: