News Column

Stanislaus County courthouse going paperless

July 7, 2014

By Rosalio Ahumada, The Modesto Bee

July 07--Stanislaus Superior Court is installing a new software program that eventually will create a paperless courthouse, storing case files in the digital world.

Going paperless is a big change for this branch of government built on a foundation of paper. Essentially, you can't get anything done in the courthouse without paper.

Huge walls of storage space crowd the Clerk's Office and boxes of older case files are stacked at an off-site storage facility. It's common to see court staffers moving through hallways, carting around stacks of case files.

"It's volumes of paper being shuffled around," said Court Executive Officer Rebecca Fleming. "It's overwhelming in some situations."

Court officials say these seemingly endless amounts of folders stuffed with documents will become a thing of the past. To accomplish that, the court is implementing its new document management system.

Each case file will be accessible to the judges with a touch of a computer screen or the click of a mouse. Staffers won't have to cart the case files into the courtrooms anymore. Forms that are normally filled out on paper, sometimes in triplicate, will be filled out on a computer screen.

The court used $1 million from its budget reserves to install the program. The money paid for computer hardware, software, training, consulting from vendors and licensing fees. Money needed to maintain the program will have to come from the states budget.

"It's really more about accessibility than money saving at this point," Fleming said. "We felt like it was reinvesting in the court."

Court officials have not determined how many of these digitally scanned case files will be available online to the public. The public can obtain copies of documents in case files for a fee, except for documents a judge has sealed or deemed confidential, such as medical records.

Fleming said it is hoped that the digital system will provide efficiencies for the public, allowing them to view some documents and electronically file forms from home. The court is also close to launching its newly formatted website, which is designed to be more consistent with other superior court websites throughout the state.

The program is being installed in phases. Child-support court started testing the program in May 2013, family law court started testing in February. Both courts are up and running, using digital documents.

"It's so easy now to do things within minutes," said family law Judge Jack Jacobson while demonstrating the paperless system. "This is just like having the file right in front of me."

It's a computer tablet that allows the judge to view a daily list of cases and pull up each file. Typically, he would have about 40 case files stacked in front of him each morning. Not anymore.

Jacobson handles divorces and custody disputes, the types of cases that can go on for as long as 18 years as people return to court to settle disagreements. These kinds of case files wind up with multiple volumes, which clutter the judge's courtroom and take up a lot of storage space.

Staffers have scanned about 500,000 documents from about 35,000 cases and uploaded them into digital storage space. For the most part, new cases and old ones that return to the courtroom will be transferred to digital. It would be too much work to scan all the files.

As of late June, the courthouse was storing about 1 million case files. About 100,000 case files are at an off-site storage facility.

The courthouse spends about $60,000 annually for the off-site storage space, and uses about 2,200 square feet of office space to store case files. "That's a house, that's a big house," Fleming said of the volume. .

Criminal court judges are testing the program and expect to start using the digital files in December. Other sections of the court, such as traffic and civil cases, are expected to begin testing later. "We will not go live until they're ready," Fleming said.

Shifting to the digital world is what private industry is doing, but the court has always functioned on paper. "Changing that up can create a lot of anxiety," Fleming said.

The court is meeting with local representatives of State Bar associations, seeking their input on implementing the program. Court clerks and judges have played a crucial role in tailoring the system to fit the needs of each courtroom.

Robert Winston, president of the Stanislaus County Criminal Courts Bar Association, welcomes the switch to a digital courthouse, but he is concerned about the possibility of the system crashing.

"What would be done to preserve the records if a man-made mistake occurs," Winston said. "I can only imagine the havoc that could take place."

The Modesto-based criminal defense attorney worries that a system failure could lose case files, delaying hearings.

Fleming said the courthouse servers have a backup system and redundancies to ensure case files are not lost. If the software or database servers went down, staffers could access them on different computers. Data generated in court will be stored separately to create a backup.

If a power failure affected the courthouse, Fleming said, the building would be closed and hearings would be delayed anyway.

Attorneys such as Winston don't see a paperless system changing much of what they do. Winston said he accepts only documents and evidence from law enforcement in a digital form. If he receives hard copies, he asks his secretary to scan them.

Programmers are working with local agencies, such as the Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office, that regularly do business with the court to create compatible paperless programs of their own.

Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley said her office hopes to have its automated paperless system up and running by the end of 2016. The District Attorney's Office hopes to create efficiencies for its own clerks and allow prosecutors to use laptops or tablets to do their work in the courtroom.

"They won't have to be lugging their carts with 30 files with them," Shipley said of prosecutors carrying case files to and from the courthouse each day. "There's no files to dump on a clerk's desk."

The District Attorney's Office also wants to digitally store its closed case files to free up storage space. They are developing a plan to create scanning stations throughout the office and provide training for the digital transfer.

"We have a lot of different pieces going on as we step into or keep up with the 21st century," Shipley said.

Other county agencies, such as Child Support Services, have already gone digital. In 2008, the agency scanned all of its files, about 35,000.

"It saves paper," said Marissa de Almeida, chief attorney for Stanislaus County Child Support Services. "It makes it easier for us."

Stacy Speiller, president of the Stanislaus County Family Law Bar Association, said switching to digital files will provide attorneys easier access to case information. If they can access the files from their computers, it will help them avoid waiting in line at the Clerk's Office.

Speiller said it's going to be a dramatic change. "We have a lot of questions, but the court has kept us informed," she said.

Stanislaus County Public Defender Tim Bazar said he welcomes a digital file system that creates efficiencies, but noted that it will be a long while before the courthouse goes entirely paperless.

Defendants, those not in custody, still need a paper document to remind them of their next hearing's day, time and location. Bazar said he's sure not everyone will have Internet access or know how to find information online.

Bazar also wonders how quickly every attorney and agency in the courthouse will move their daily work into the digital world. But he says this change was inevitable.

"I'm still concerned that this will not be the seamless transition that everyone hopes it would be," Bazar said. "In the end, we'll get it working."

Presiding Judge Loretta Begen said it's a challenging process to switch to digital formats, and the court staff should be commended for the hard work and dedication they've invested in this project.

"However, we recognize the need for technological changes so that we can eventually operate more efficiently and provide our community with greater access to court documents," Begen said. "These changes will benefit our court users, who will be able to navigate the judicial system and conduct their transactions electronically."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or (209) 578-2394. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeCourts.

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(c)2014 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.)

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