By ROBIN J. DAVIS
CHARLESTON -- The West Virginia court system took a big step this summer toward implementing a long-anticipated unification of our computer case management system.
The Supreme Court of Appeals signed a four-year, $4.162 million contract with ACS Government Services of Lexington, Ky., on July 1 after reviewing proposals from three companies that wanted the chance to design and implement the system. The Court also paid $600,000 for an Oracle database. Other costs may be incurred as the system is put into place.
Executives from ACS presented their plans to Administrative Office employees during a meeting in the Supreme Court chamber on July 27.
The Unified Judicial Application, or UJA, will standardize the processes and computer programs that are used in magistrate courts, family courts and circuit courts throughout the state and link them with the Supreme Court of Appeals. The system will have a centralized database and will allow greater access to court information and statistics.
In some ways, the judicial branch of government has lagged behind the executive and legislative branches in our ability to provide information about our operations to the public, and in our ability to interact with other state agencies. The Supreme Court is committed to improving the court system's accountability. With this system, we will be able to provide more accurate crime and punishment statistics to the public and the Legislature, which then will have better information on which to base public policy.
The UJA also will improve public safety. For example, someone can now be convicted multiple times of second-offense driving under the influence because each county keeps its own records. Under the UJA, all counties will have the same system and they will all be linked, so a person's complete criminal record will be quickly available in every courthouse.
The new system will allow courts to interact more effectively with the Department of Health and Human Resources on child abuse and neglect and other issues courts regularly monitor.
The UJA will allow more effective record-keeping of court costs and fines that are collected, and more effective auditing to ensure those collections are distributed to programs which they fund. That money is an important budget backbone for regional jails and the state Crime Victims Compensation Fund, among others.
The UJA also will reduce redundant data entry across the court system and improve efficiency by streamlining processes and eliminating manual tasks.
The system will encompass docketing, scheduling, calendars, sentencing, event management, integrated accounting, form generation, management reporting, evidence tracking, file tracking, on-line documentation and public Web access. The system will be integrated with existing state information systems. And, of course, it will have a comprehensive security system.
Mechanisms will be built in to accommodate legislative changes.
Data conversion and training have already begun. A pilot project for the Magistrate Court system will be implemented before June 2007, with a statewide Magistrate Court rollout scheduled from September 2007 through June 2008.
A pilot project for the circuit and family court systems will begin in February 2009, with a statewide rollout planned for March 2009 to January 2010.
An ACS business process specialist spent three days in mid-July meeting with a committee of Supreme Court Administrative Office personnel and magistrate court clerks. They discussed in detail each type of business the clerks transact, each step in each process, and all types of papers each process generates. They also went over in detail each financial transaction in a magistrate clerk's office.
ACS will use that information to produce a flow chart of each process. Magistrate clerks and Administrative Office managers will review that for accuracy. ACS will then use those diagrams to program its computer software and hardware. The company and court system committee will then identify where the system needs to be enhanced or where a business process needs to be changed to fit within the new system. The goal is to minimize the number of changes clerks will have to make to the way they now do business.
The final product of this collaboration will be tested in the Monongalia County Magistrate Court Clerk's office for two months. The clerk's office employees will do each task twice, once the way they do it now and once using the new system. That process will point out any problems or changes that need to be made. The system will then be tested in two other county magistrate clerk offices.
Then the UJA will be deployed in the other 52 counties, and the preparation process will start all over again for circuit and family courts. Circuit and family courts will be done simultaneously because circuit clerks serve both court systems. Those court systems have more complicated processes, but by then ACS and the Administrative Office staff will have experience implementing systemwide changes, so the work should go well.
The T-1 lines that the UJA will operate on were put in place when West Virginia linked all its courthouses and jails with a closed-circuit system. West Virginia's court system is a national leader in videoconferencing technology, and the UJA is the next logical way to use technology to improve the efficiency and fairness of the judicial system.
Davis is chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.