The Midtown Community Court, located on West 54th Street in Midtown
Manhattan, is an experiment in constructive, accessible community
based justice. It uses the latest technologies to achieve these goals
Constructive: judge and counsel have the information, the resources,
and the programs, in place and on site, so that they can fashion a
result that is both fair and constructive -- one which repays the
community and gives the defendant a chance to solve problems which
can lead to crime.
Accessible: a family member or an observer can come in to court and
find out exactly -- and comprehensibly -- what happened in a case
just by looking at a computer screen.
Efficient: cases are processed swiftly and sentences imposed
immediately, eliminating unnecessary delays and increasing compliance
with community based sentences.
In meeting these goals, the Community Court makes extensive use of
the latest technological innovations, from machines that read
handwriting to scanners that store documents, from statewide data
networks to easy to use graphical screen interfaces. This technology
project has been a cooperative effort of the Office of Court
Administration of the New York State Unified Court System with the
Fund for the City of New York and the Technology and Justice Center
of the Vera Institute of Justice.
This document describes how a case is handled at the Community Court
-- and how technology is used to make justice at the Courthouse
immediate, visible, and accessible.
The Technology Group of the Vera Institute of Justice, is helping
reformulate and strengthen the relationships between the justice
system and those that the system deals with and serves, with the goal
of increasing justice. This reformation is guided by principles of
Visibility, Access, Contextualization, Individualization, Immediacy,
Communication, Service, Equity and Responsible Use of Technology. Our
work tests our belief that technologies, by opening up new
possibilities, can move us beyond the sterile win- lose choices about
which the system traditionally struggles.
The Fund for the City of New York was established by the Ford
Foundation in 1968 to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of
urban government and of other nonprofit organizations. Over twenty-
five years, the Fund has assisted New York City with strategic
planning and provided technological support for non-profit
organizations. The Fund's mandate is to respond to the problems of
local government and to improve the quality of life in New York City.
The Midtown Community Court is a project of The Fund for the City of
One: The Court Conducts the Assessment Interview
Across the country, courts of limited jurisdiction are struggling to
develop ways to respond constructively to the complicated problems of
offenders. Every court faces problems of substance abuse,
homelessness, TB, and HIV. The links between these problems and crime
are well documented.
The Community Court is piloting an integrated assessment system that
helps evaluate defendants' needs and matches them to appropriate
services and sentences.
This process starts with a comprehensive assessment interview with
each defendant. This interview, conducted by the staff of the
Criminal Justice Agency (CJA), includes questions designed to help
the judge decide bail, and also questions that help the court decide
what services the defendant may need to stay out of further trouble,
and what kind of non-custodial sanction might be appropriate.
The interviews are conducted using "pen-based" computers. These
computers can read and translate text written with a pen directly
onto the computer screen. The software for this interview has been
designed and written specially for the Community Court. As soon as
the interview is complete, it is loaded directly into the main court
DEC VAX computer, and is available to court staff, attorneys, and the
judge, so that they can start to develop an appropriate disposition.
Two: The Court Computer Gathers Information
Over the past 20 years, criminal justice agencies, from courts to
public defender offices, from probation departments to district
attorneys offices, have built case tracking systems. The challenge
for the future is to use emerging technologies to integrate these
systems seamlessly so that all appropriate information about a
defendant is available to those who need it -- regardless of its
source - - thus saving time and money.
The Community Court has worked with many agencies to build these
links. As a result, the Judge, attorneys and staff at the Court have
access to the information gathered by the New York City Police
Department such as the arrest location and time. They are also able
to see on their computer screens the charges and the text of the
complaint from the District Attorney; the defendant's criminal record
from the Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS); and
information such as the existance of warrants generated by the
Clerk's Office computer.
When all this information is brought together with the assessment
interview, Court staff and attorneys have a fully integrated picture
of the defendant.
Three: The Court Verifies the Defendant's Release
Status The 1960's brought to the nation bail reform and a systematic
method for assessing a defendant's likelihood to appear at subsequent
The Community Court uses technology to bring this assessment
interview and verification process into the 21st century using
handheld "pen" computers.
The "pen" based computers speed the interview, and eliminate
repetitious data entry. The network distributes the information to
all Courthouse participants. As soon as the assessment interview is
complete, the defendant's responses are ready for verification.
The Community Court has written special software that assists the CJA
staff make the verification phone calls.
This software combines the information from the phone calls with
criminal record and charge information making it easy for the
Criminal Justice Agency to apply its release formula. As soon as the
release "score" is calculated, it shows on computer screens
Four: Court Staff Prepare the Case for the Judge
Pressed by lack of funds to build jail cells, and by a growing
recognition that jail should be reserved for the most serious
criminals, jurisdictions across the country are establishing
alternative sanctions. Community service, mediation, drug treatment,
and fines are growing in popularity.
The Community Court is using technology to bring together information
about these programs, including slot availability, compliance rates,
and eligibility requirements.
With specially written software, the Court's computer system brings
together information from the assessment interview, from the
verification calls, from the police computer, from the District
Attorney, from the Office of Court Administration computer, and from
the Division of Criminal Justice Systems and display it in a manner
that makes it easy for judge, attorneys, and the Court's resource
staff to know more about the defendant and to evaluate the most
The software also shows the actual availability of social service
programs and alternative sanctions, so that the Court's resource
coordinator can make realistic recommendations to the judge.
During this process, the resource coordinator analyzes each
defendant's assessment interview and counsel interview their clients
and evaluate the case, inputting the results into a confidential
portion of the computer.
The DA and the defender attempt to reach plea and sentencing
agreement, and report back whether or not an agreement has been
Court officers and police keep track of the defendant's location, and
put that information in the computer so that staff -- whether Court
or social service -- can locate the defendant when needed.
Five: The Court Monitors the Case Through its Stages
Crowded court calendars, extended delays between arrest and
arraignment, and growing costs of the provision services require
courts to manage their business aggressively.
The Community Court has written special court flow software so that
the Court's business flows smoothly and so that logjams can be
identified as they occur.
From defendant arrival to alternate sanction selection, this software
automatically -- and without special data input -- keeps track of
each case as it moves through the Court.
The software shows each user which cases are ready, and is designed
to allow court managers to identify backlogs.
Six: The Court Systems Keeps the Public Informed
Courts are under attack. Public confidence in courts is eroding.
Jurors, victims, witnesses, defendants, and their families and
community members complain of an inability to get the basic
information they need. Often they leave the court feeling alienated,
overwhelmed and confused.
The Community Court has built special systems to inform all who visit
the Court exactly what is occurring in the Courtroom and the
To help those who come to the Court -- whether family of a defendant,
community member, witness or victim -- large TV screens in the
courtroom and the Court lobby show all the cases calendared for the
day, including the dispositions of cases as they are heard. The Court
is now working on a system that will generate and display on the same
monitors the estimated time each case will be called. This airline
type information system should make it easier to understand and
follow the Court's business.
Seven: The Judge Decides how to Dispose of the Case
Courts of the 21st century will house substance abuse counselors,
health care workers, and job counselors, all working together to
respond to the complicated problems communities face. Information
will need to flow efficiently and quickly to the courtroom and then
from the courtroom to on-site counselors, off-site social service
organizations, and other agencies.
The Community Court's Judicial Desktop brings before the judge on one
19" monitor all the critical information about the defendant. The
Desktop, shown below integrates arrest information, the complaint
generated by the District Attorney, the assessment information
uploaded from the pen- based computer, the defendant's criminal
record, and comments from counsel and the resource coordinator.
The entire screen is color coded, with red indicating a problem area
that may need the judge's attention, and green indicating the absence
of any problem requiring such attention.
The Judge can click on any area of the screen to see more
For example, by clicking anywhere in the housing area, the judge can
get detailed information about the housing status of the defendant
before the bench.
The judge can press the "Prior Court" button and see all the
information in the system about the defendant's prior history in the
Community Court, including compliance with prior community based
The Judge can use the search tools to check on the details of the
defendant's criminal record.
If the judge clicks on the Documents Button, the screen shows a list
of all documents that have been scanned in by the Clerk's Office for
a particular case. By clicking on a document name, the judge can see
that document displayed on the screen.
Or, if the Notes button is flashing, the judge can click on it and
see a list of all notes entered by the Court social services team for
that defendant. Of course confidential Notes are only available to
Notes can be displayed by clicking on a particular entry.
At any point, the judge can create a Note and can choose to send it
to the rest of the Court team.
As soon as the judge reaches a disposition, it is entered by a clerk
and displayed on the computers of the judge and counsel. The judge
presses a button to confirm the disposition, and this information is
then immediately available to all those in the Courthouse, who may
have to work on the case.
At the request of the judges who sit in the Community Court, the
Court's development team is now writing software so that judges can
enter their own dispositions directly on the computer.
Eight: The Court Monitors Compliance with the Sanction
When courts impose alternative sanctions, offenders, victims and the
community need to know that they mean business. Offenders who do not
show up or do not complete their sentences must answer for their
All alternative sanction attendance sheets are returned to the Court
and become part of the computer record of the case. The computer is
programmed to make sure that the Court knows of all violations of the
conditions of a sentence.
The Court uses sophisticated reporting software to keep the Court
team up to date on compliance rates so that it can adjust its
policies and procedures as warranted.
The Future: The Next Generation At The Community Court
The next generation of technology at the Community Court will
include these enhancements which are currently being developed:
* Police Feedback System. A system that informs every police officer
of the disposition in cases where he or she has made an arrest. The
officer will learn about sentence, warrants and instances of re-
arrest. This information will include computer stored photographs of
* Predictive Judicial Desktop. A new version of the Judge's Desktop
will include analytic software that analyzes success rates for
alternative sanctions for different kinds of defendants, and displays
predictions for the judge.
* Community Mapping. A mapping display system that will show judges
and the community where crimes are occurring, and how these patterns
change over time. This will help the Court, the police, and the
community become more reflective about the impact of law enforcement
strategies and sentencing.
* Electronic Filing. Electronic document filing by police, the DA and
other agencies will enable the Clerk to focus on information
management and court flow supervision.
* Justice System Networking. So that judge and counsel will have more
information on the spot, defendant's parole, probation and
incarceration status, will be electronically imported and displayed
on the Court screens.
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