State spending $20 million to modernize court system

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,418 views 

The state Administrative Office of the Courts is spending $20 million to modernize its court management system, allowing better access to legal documents and better communication with Arkansans, such as text reminders of court dates.

Funding came from the state’s share of COVID-based federal American Rescue Plan funding. It was approved by the Arkansas Legislative Council Dec. 16. The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) has two years to obligate the funds and three years to expend them.

The AOC has worked the past two years with limited funds to build a new statewide system that would replace the antiquated legacy systems used by district, circuit and appellate courts for case and jury management, electronic filing, online access by the public, and online payment processing.

Tim Holthoff, court information systems director, said the existing system was built using 1990s technology with additions added in the early 2000s. The system, while good when it was first created, is difficult to sustain, and it takes weeks for a clerk to learn to use it effectively.

The vendor, Avenu Insights, has not been able to modernize the system, so the AOC decided to build its own. It wants a system that can change as Arkansas courts change. Marty Sullivan, Arkansas state court administrator, said full-time staff dedicated to maintaining the system – and the million dollars a year spent licensing the product – can be shifted to continuous improvement.

“This is really transformative,” he said. “This is shifting us from a vendor reliance to a product that we own and that we are constantly working on and improving and making better.”

Holthoff said the AOC wants a system all courts can use. All the circuit courts have been on the same system for years, but the district court processing is more complicated, and most are not using the system. The lack of state uniformity means users don’t have full visibility into what’s going on in the state’s justice system. Criminal background checks don’t catch district courts that are not on the system, which includes individuals convicted of Class A misdemeanors such as assault and theft of property that are punishable by up to a year in jail.

Sullivan said the many different systems makes it easier for court clerks to steal. The state’s legacy system does provide good accounting and checks and balances, but it’s so user-unfriendly that most district courts are not using them.

“There’s been numerous cases of court clerks in district courts that have stolen money. That’s unfortunately not uncommon,” said Sullivan.

The system will provide visibility into 13 terabytes of legal documents that have been scanned but not indexed and aren’t visible through a text search. The current system relies on attorneys to electronically file documents by selecting the right court, case type and document type. With machine learning and artificial intelligence, the system would do that automatically. The legacy systems cannot handle text reminders of court dates and payment due dates.

“Basic things that everybody expects today: You schedule a dentist appointment, you get a text reminder,” Holthoff said. “That should be something that every case management system does. Our system can’t do it. The Pulaski courts have used a third party vendor to sort of kind of do that.”

Sullivan and Holthoff said the system will remind Arkansans about court dates and locations, which will reduce failure-to-appear violations. It will provide links for paying fees, costs and fines, and will set up automatic bank drafts. Violators now can go online and make payments, but the system doesn’t send reminders or draft funds automatically. Sullivan said the fact that the state will be managing the program in house will improve revenue collections for cities and counties. Vendors outside the state’s system have tended not to change codes or add fees as mandated by new legislation.

With a state-run system, cities and counties will get more accurate information, while the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee will have a better view of what’s happening in the court system.

“I realized early on that no one cares or knows as much about our court system than we do, and so I’ve challenged our IT department to tell me what it takes, what it’s going to take to build a system, and we’ve done that,” he said. “We’ve been doing that for the last two years, and we’ve really laid the groundwork, so this infusion of money is going to really help us move the courts into the 21st century.”