Getting to Work

 
 
By Alison Diana  |  Posted 2010-01-25
 
 
 

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, Miss.

The storm, which caused more than 1,800 deaths and more than $81 billion in damages nationwide, tore the roof off the 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 the Mississippi court would never again face the destruction of so much invaluable information, Thompson developed 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,” he 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 these containers and have them taken inland, either to a storage facility or another trailer. During the 2008 hurricane season, we moved all the court records that were on the bottom two shelves up, at least off the ground. We took tarps and dropped them over the shelving, then prayed a tornado wouldn’t come along and suck everything out of there.”

Thompson realized the combination of containers 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.

A former law-enforcement officer, Thompson was accustomed to working with electronic files. Determined to bring the court into the digital age, he researched various options, looking for a proven solution that would integrate all three databases and eliminate space-hungry and easily lost paper files.

While at a court administrators’ conference, Thompson saw demonstrations by Syscon, the developer of an electronic court records and docket management system that digitizes paper files and organizes the docket, along with solutions from competitors such as Tyler Technologies’ INCODE.

“We looked at [Tyler], 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 with one of the Circuit Court judges, and that really sold me.”

There was a problem, however: funding. Having attended a course on grant-writing, Thompson put his new-found skills to work and won a $460,000 grant from the Department of Justice.

The court notified Syscon on July 7, 2009. On July 8, the vendor started converting the court files from 2006 and moving data from the existing databases to its solution. After providing four weeks of training for 25 court employees, four members of the prosecutors’ office and two judges, Gulfport Municipal Court went live in October 2009.

The solution was customized to meet the court’s terminology and operations. “It was laid out the way we wanted,” Thompson says. “The vendor sat down with our court clerks, collection officers and warrant officers, and designed the court software the way we operate.”

All data is stored on workstations on a seven-day rotation and on redundant servers at the court. To prevent data loss, information is backed up in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Ala., and the administrator does a weekly external backup.

The database lets the court run more smoothly and make better use of court officers’ time, says Thompson. “Now we are docket-specific,” he explains. “DUIs and traffic cases are assigned on a specific date and time. Drug cases are heard on a specific date. That helps us and the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys. We’ve reduced the time spent on continuances.”

Another benefit is that people can pay fines online rather than in court. And police officers have 24/7 access to outstanding warrants, which was previously unavailable when court was closed, Thompson notes. 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.

“It takes that information right off our docket,” he explains. “One other benefit is that we’re interfacing with the police department so they now have warrant information. They’ve never had warrant information before. After hours, no one was available to say whether or not there was a warrant.”

Today, Thompson is seeking additional funding to complete the digitization of all the records. Once paper records are scanned and verified, the files are shredded according to the court’s standards, which frees up valuable space. By October 2010, Thompson expects all the records to be digitized.
By streamlining its infrastructure, investing in a digital imaging solution and storing data in multiple sites, Gulfport Municipal Court created order from chaos and is prepared for the worst—while fervently hoping that day never comes.