Running More Smoothly

 
 
By Alison Diana  |  Posted 2010-04-08
 
 
 

When Hurricane Katrina roared its murderous path into Mississippi and Louisiana in August 2005, the howling winds and punishing rains destroyed lives, homes and businesses—and temporarily blinded Lady Justice in Gulfport.

The storm, blamed for more than 1,800 deaths and more than $81 billion in damages nationwide, tore the roof off Gulfport Municipal Court, water-logging files and destroying the walls that housed them. Years of supporting documentation in criminal and civil complaints became sodden and illegible.

“We lost a number of cases—I mean they were gone,” says Odell Thompson, the court administrator who was hired in March 2007.

Determined that the Mississippi court would never again face the destruction of so much valuable information, Thompson needed to develop a disaster recovery solution. While working from a trailer and waiting for the construction of a new courthouse, he began rebuilding and improving the court’s infrastructure.

“I bought 600 Rubbermaid containers,” Thompson recalls. “The plan was to take every last one of our court records off the shelf—and we had close to 90,000 court records—put them in those containers and have them taken inland, either to a storage facility or another trailer.

“During the 2008 hurricane season, the plan changed, and we moved all the court records that were on the bottom two shelves up to at least be off the ground. We took tarps and dropped them over the shelving and just prayed a tornado wouldn’t come along and suck everything out of there.”

Moving to Digital Records

Thompson realized that the combination of Rubbermaid and prayer was unsustainable and did nothing to reduce the court’s paperwork. Mother Nature was not the only force working against him: Gulfport’s legal offices were using a hodge-podge of three incompatible databases. “That was time-consuming,” Thompson says in an understatement.

A former officer with the Illinois state police, Thompson was accustomed to working with electronic files. Determined to bring the court into the digital age, he researched his options, seeking a proven solution to integrate all three databases and eliminate space-hungry, easily lost paper files.

While at a court administrators’ conference, Thompson saw a demonstration by Syscon, a developer of an electronic court records and docket management system. Intrigued by the system’s ability to digitize paper files and organize the docket, he reviewed solutions by that vendor and its competitors.

“We looked at [Tyler Technologies], but the way their software was set up, there were too many other windows you had to open up,” Thompson says. “It was like having separate applications as opposed to an integrated solution, and that did not meet my goals. I observed [Syscon’s] software demonstration live with one of the Circuit Court judges, and I saw it work and that’s what really sold me.”

Thompson was sold on the technology but needed funding. He took a grant-writing course, put his new skills to work and won a $460,000 grant from the Department of Justice.

The court notified Syscon on July 7, 2009, that the project was approved. On July 8, the vendor started converting the court files from 2006 and moving data from the existing databases to its management solution, according to Thompson.

Rather than forcing the court to adapt, the vendor customized its solution to meet the court’s terminology and operations, says Thompson. “It was laid out the way we wanted,” he explains. “What we were calling a docket number, they called a case number. They sat down with our court clerks, the collection manager and warrant officers, and then designed the court software to accommodate the way we operate.”

After four weeks of training for 25 court staff, four members of the prosecutors’ office and two judges, Gulfport Municipal Court went live in October 2009.

The court’s information is contained in both an Oracle database and an image archive. The database is stored on mirrored drives and includes both metadata and recently scanned images. It is backed up on a physically and logically independent server drive, as well as on one of a rotating set of removable hard drives, which can be carried off-site daily.

In addition to storing each image on the workstation where it was scanned, the image archive is stored on the Gulfport server, plus a server located at Syscon’s office in Tuscaloosa, Ala., as well as on CDs at both facilities.

Running More Smoothly

The database enables the court to run more smoothly and make better use of court officers’ time, says Thompson. “Now we are docket-specific,” he explains. “For example, DUIs [driving-under-the-influence cases] and traffic cases are assigned on a specific time and date. Drug cases are heard on a specific date.

“We’ve reduced the time spent on continuances. This helps us, as well as the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys.”

In addition, residents can now pay fines online rather than in court. And police officers have 24/7 access to outstanding warrants, which was previously unavailable when the court was closed, notes Thompson. Officers also spend less idle time in court, since the system notifies police of trial dates and times, rather than forcing them to attend arraignments. The system pulls that information right off the docket.

“One other benefit is that we’re interfacing with the police department so they have warrant information” when they need it, Thompson says. “They’ve never before had warrant information after hours, when no one was available.”

Today, Thompson is seeking additional funding to complete the records’ digitization. Once the paper records are scanned and verified, the files are shredded according to the court’s standards, freeing up valuable space. By October 2010, Thompson expects all the records to be digitized.

Also in the fall, the court expects to move from its temporary site into a new, modern facility. 

By streamlining its infrastructure, investing in a digital imaging solution and storing data in multiple sites, Gulfport Municipal Court has created order from chaos. It is now prepared for the worst that hurricane season can dish out, while fervently hoping that nightmare never returns.