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.