Trends 2013-2016

A list of monthly Trends articles for August 2013 through October 2016 has been compiled.  See full article archive.


Automation Brings Accuracy and Efficiency to Pre-Arraignment Process

DANIEL J. NEES, ASSISTANT PROSECUTING ATTORNEY, SHIAWASSEE COUNTY, MICHIGAN

The trip from the back of a patrol car to a court docket can be a very complicated process that must follow the letter of the law. Michigan’s Shiawassee County is using information technology to simplify and speed up that process while ensuring fewer mistakes and reducing costs.

For the individual standing before a judge, arraignment is simply a matter of pleading guilty or not. For attorneys, court clerks, police, and law-enforcement administrators, an arraignment requires careful and often extensive coordination and communication among all involved.

Shiawassee County, Michigan, is using records management software to improve the speed and accuracy of that coordination and communication, turning police investigation and field reports into arrest warrants with formal court charges that will withstand the rigors of local-, state-, and federal-rights and personal-property protections.

This process requires careful examination by highly skilled and educated individuals, who are relied on to avoid exposing local law enforcement and adjudication agencies to costly mistakes and potential litigation—or worse, letting a dangerous individual who should be in jail back out on the street. But for those experts to do their jobs, all manner of paperwork must be filled out, photocopied, passed around, and signed.

An officer’s arrest report must be prepared and sent over to the offices of the county prosecutor, where the handling procedures may be radically different depending on numerous mitigating circumstances, such as whether the individual is an adult or a juvenile. Other potential complications in the pre-arraignment process hinge on whether the individual is in police custody or if his or her arrest involved the forfeiture of possessions—just to name a few. Decisions must be made as to what charges to bring and if the accused needs a public defender. At any point, the need for more information can start the whole process anew.

Automating the Archaic

Automating this process presents a number of challenges, but Shiawassee County, and a few other jurisdictions, are taking those challenges on. There are dozens of steps in the pre-arraignment process that can be automated to save time and improve efficiency and accuracy. In Shiawassee, this automation started with one of the biggest and costliest steps in its pre-arraignment process: the “prosecutor run,” which is a trip made twice daily by officers from the 16 local police departments to the prosecutor’s office to drop off arrest reports and warrant requests.

County police departments can spend tens of thousands of dollars collectively each month on prosecutor runs. In addition, they take hours from an officer’s workday, not to mention wear and tear on patrol cars and gas costs incurred by each department involved. Then there is the cost of not having those officers on the streets doing the jobs they are trained to do.

While prosecutor runs were the largest and most expensive aspect of Shiawassee’s pre-arraignment process, they were ironically the easiest step to automate. This fact helped justify the purchase of the Laserfiche ECM electronic records management software system that is now driving the county’s automation project.

In 2012 the Shiawassee Prosecutor’s Office relied on an entirely paper-based records management system contained in rows of metal filing cabinets. The county knew it could realize considerable labor and storage costs savings just by converting its paper files into electronic files. But Shiawassee wanted more than an electronic filing cabinet, and with close direction from a national Laserfiche sales and installations company called General Code, Shiawassee IT staff started implementing software modules within the new system that are designed to automate and eliminate manual tasks common to records management.

From Patrol Cars to PDFs

The prosecutor run was eliminated through the new system’s workflow module, which now allows police departments to upload arrests records directly into Shiawassee’s rapidly expanding electronic records management system. Warrant requests, which once took officers hours each day to deliver in patrol cars, are now transferred in seconds via computer PDF files and e-mail. It took a few weeks to get the system up and running, but without any interruption to daily processing of everyday pre-arraignment paperwork. When the installation was finished, so was the prosecutor run in Shiawassee County; however, the automation of the pre-arraignment process was just getting started.

Administration and IT staff in Shiawassee County’s court offices turned their attention to identifying other work to automate. Numerous offices and officials can be involved in the various combinations of manual tasks assigned to the different types of warrant requests received from police departments every day. If a warrant request involves a juvenile offender, the redactions necessary to ensure confidentiality now happen automatically. If county-screening staff decide a warrant request is incomplete, which happens about 20 percent of the time, they note the missing items, and the software system automatically returns them to the originating police department for correction, eliminating even more prosecutor runs for police departments.

If a warrant request passes the initial screening for further processing, alerts about the pending paperwork are sent via e-mail to those next in line to receive it. The sender is also alerted when the warrant request has been successfully received. If problems arise, or supplemental information is needed at any step along the way, staffers can note the revisions needed, and the software returns or reroutes the request with similar alerts to sender and receiver. Nothing gets lost in the system anymore.

Finding Efficiencies Everywhere

As the system expanded, county IT staff found other areas of the pre-arraignment process that could be automated. An electronic forms module within the software system now eliminates the very time-consuming process of police manually pulling the information from department records management systems and then typing it into the PDFs sent over to the prosecutor’s office.

Shiawassee’s new records management system was next tied into Michigan’s arrest and convictions records system, called ACT. This statewide repository ensures that proposed arrest warrants comply with state law. When they do, the warrant requests are issued a case number and returned to the prosecutor’s office—the final step before the courts can issue a warrant. When the ACT staff finds deficiencies in warrant requests, those files are now automatically returned to the prosecutor’s office with an e-mail notification listing problems that need to be addressed. The ACT integration also allows the prosecutor’s office instant access to the state’s arrest and conviction archives, further speeding the process of promulgating formal charges.

Now when police request a warrant, supporting documentation is automatically uploaded from police records management systems onto a PDF that is then e-mailed to the prosecutor’s office. When it clears the prosecutor’s office, the PDF is routed to the state’s ACT system, where it is reviewed again and, if deemed complete, assigned a case number and forwarded to the submitting police department for submission to the courts.

Eliminating Mistakes

Chief among the benefits is the elimination of many errors in processing Shiawassee’s pre-arraignment records and warrant requests. The automation has eliminated much of the manual data entry and records duplication and distribution. As a result, the accuracy of input into ACT from Shiawassee County has improved dramatically, while other Michigan counties are still having some serious problems—problems that Shiawassee once shared.

Those records in ACT often play a vital role in a police department’s promulgation of charges. Shiawassee’s ACT records are generally recognized as being more reliable—so much so the state has congratulated Shiawassee on the improvement.

Jurisdictions in other state conduct similar prosecutor runs and cope with all the manual work behind warrant requests and arraignment preparations. While each jurisdiction may have its own way of doing things, the technology adapts fairly easily to different recordkeeping conditions and practices. Similar software solutions are being implemented in Oneida and Tompkins counties, New York, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania.

It Takes Teamwork

The new software system now automates dozens of operations police and prosecutors previously did by hand, but the build-out took several months of collaborative efforts by IT staff at both agencies. Tying the local, county, and state systems together required another several weeks of effort by staff at all three levels of government. The efforts have produced a pre-arraignment system in Shiawassee that processes in one morning what used to take two or three days. Moreover, as staff become more accustomed to using the system, unexpected benefits and opportunities for expansion into new areas of operations should arise.

Because this technology represents such a departure from long-established methods, there needs to be a spirit of cooperation on all parts before getting started. Law enforcement and administration staff must undergo training and stay current with upgrades in the technology. Department heads and elected officials must be willing to make the investment and assume the annual license fees. But when the systems are up and running smoothly, the money saved eclipses the costs, and even the most skeptical staffer who learns the new technology more often than not becomes an ardent advocate.

So much of the pre-arraignment process has been automated, that Shiawassee County’s IT staff are now looking at another time-consuming operation police must still conduct manually: printing out the warrants the prosecutors have issued and driving them over to the courts to be executed. That too will be automated if the county courts agree to allow electronic signatures to be legally binding, a decision courts in other areas of the country, such as Cowlitz County, Washington, have already made.

Such modifications to long-established methods of enforcing and administering the law may seem jarring at first, and Shiawassee’s expansion of its Laserfiche system met with resistance in some offices. But in these days of ever-shrinking government budgets, it is not an option to avoid deploying technology proven to reduce costs and improve performance.


Reports are part of the National Center for State Courts' "Report on Trends in State Courts" and "Future Trends in State Courts" series.
Opinions herein are those of the authors, not necessarily of the National Center for State Courts.