By Stuart R. Wahlin
The county’s new court and case management system is expected to be online April 26, and Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (R) used his April 15 State of the County address to showcase the $6.7 million investment through a panel of local justice system leaders.
“Over 80 percent of our resources are dedicated to courts and public safety,” Christiansen noted, indicating the costly upgrade is hoped to ultimately save the county money. “We’re now ready to deploy the culmination of over five years’ work.”
According to Tom Lawson, chief deputy of the circuit clerk’s office, the first step toward the new system was taken in 2005, when a consulting contract was executed to determine recommendations for improving the county justice system’s technological, organizational, staffing and business processes.
“One of the most major recommendations involved our current vendor, Jano Justice Systems,” Lawson said of the outdated electronic system that’s been in place since 1999. “Though the system worked for the circuit clerk’s office, it did not work for the system as a whole.”
The new system, he said, is aimed at improved efficiency and effectiveness of the entire system by streamlining processes between the court system’s various components, and through technology upgrades to manage approximately 1.8 million cases.
The result, Lawson said, is “getting the right people to the right place at the right time.”
He asserted the $6.7 million price tag for the new system is well below the $16 million estimated at the start of the process.
Lawson reported county staff has logged 70,000 labor hours toward bringing the new system online.
Additionally, to make a seamless transition from the old system to the new, 100 million rows of data are being converted, and 500,000 lines of custom code needed to be written, Lawson reported.
That process, however, has become the subject of litigation between Jano and representatives of Justice Systems, Inc. (JSI), which is the company contracted by the county to write the new code for the transition.
Last year, Jano filed a federal intellectual property rights lawsuit against former partners and employees now working for JSI. Jano alleges JSI is using proprietary information, namely Jano code, to make the conversion possible for Winnebago County.
The county has not been named in the suit, and despite having received a cease-and-desist letter from Jano, the litigation has not slowed the county’s progress in implementing the new case management system.
In 2008, the county opted to part ways with Jano after entering into a $12,000 agreement in 2007 for upgrades meant to improve fine-collecting capabilities. The county provided $6,000 upfront, but the project was never completed.
The civil side
Seventeenth Circuit Chief Judge Janet Holmgren (R) said excitement about the “new way of doing business” was “unbridled.”
She reported about 122,000 new cases were opened last year, and that just as many pending ones had been closed. The new case management system is expected to help the 17th Circuit—the fifth busiest in the state—to reduce its load by resolving cases more expediently in a “virtually error-free” manner.
“This project has afforded our community intangible and tangible benefits,” she said. “The tangible benefits are that we’re going to have a state-of-the-art, unprecedented information-sharing system. It exists nowhere else—not in Illinois, not in the country.
“The interaction among all of the offices has had that intangible benefit of we know each other now,” Holmgren indicated. “We know how we do business. We know why we do the things we do, and we know why we need to do them in a particular way. And that allows us to open up conversations and to solve problems in a way that I think is unmatched in virtually every other community.”
She noted the approach has already had positive results, even before the new case management system has come online. In 2006, she reported, only 85 jury trials had been resolved. She noted the circuit is on pace to complete nearly double that number this year.
Holmgren also pledged that collection of fines would become more aggressive under the new system.
“We’re going to send a message out to those who get traffic fines and don’t think they need to pay them, by creating this new call that there will be significant consequences,” she asserted.
“We’re getting serious about revenue collection in a way that we really, really, really mean it, and the consequences will be severe,” Holmgren warned. “We need to do our part in supporting and enhancing that aspect.”
Also as a result of the new system, she said, the circuit will use much less paper, because judges will be forced to become more reliant on electronic files, which will also reduce staff time devoted to keeping and copying paper files.
The criminal side
State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato (D) indicated that, as with civil matters, the number of criminal jury trials is also picking up pace.
Between 2001 and 2007, he reported, the average number of jury trials completed was 57 annually. This year, he anticipates more than 100. He argued the quickened pace is an important factor in keeping the jail population down by prosecuting simple, non-violent cases on a “fast track,” while keeping the “worst of the worst” incarcerated.
“As we try these cases, and we bring those numbers up, we can better track in the courtrooms what cases are pending, how old they are, and what areas we need to focus our resources on,” he added.
Like Holmgren, Bruscato vowed to crack down on unpaid fines to increase revenue.
“Fines aren’t medical bills, or debts, or Visa cards,” he asserted. “They are punishments.”
He said the new case management system, which he described as a “jewel,” would aid in tracking whether fines have been paid.
The law enforcement side
Sheriff Dick Meyers (D) explained: “Every law enforcement agency nationwide deals on one thing, and that’s information, and management of that information, and the efficiency of that information and the ability to retrieve it. The mistake we tend to make is we internalize that within our individual departments without realizing that we are part of a system.
“What court case management has done, it’s taken those lines that divide a lot of the independent offices, and eliminates those lines, and it makes all that information retrievable,” he indicated. “Courts are not 24 hours, seven days a week, but our need for information is 24/7. This is gonna give us that access to that information. When we stop that person on a warrant and they say, ‘I was in court yesterday,’ we can look at the court document to find out, were they, or were they not?”
He added, “The more information you can make available to our officers on the street at 2:00 in the morning when they’re out there dealing with public safety issues, helping us, the citizens, remain safe, the better it is for that patrol officer, the safer it is for that patrol officer, the better those officers can serve our community.”
Meyers also lauded the benefits of shifting from paper to electronic files. He reported approximately 286,000 copies were made last year in the records division.
Although the material cost for those copies totaled about $6,000, Meyers noted, “What’s not added into that is the cost of the personnel to make those 286,000 copies.”
Meyers said the new system will also serve as a powerful analytical tool for evaluating officer performance. As an example, he noted the system’s tracking capabilities could help identify if an officer has a high percentage of tickets that are dismissed, in which case training could be provided to improve the success rate.
From the April 21-27, 2010 issue