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From Vera Inst. of Justice

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 efficiently.

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 New York.

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 court appearances.

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 courtwide.

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 appropriate disposition.

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 reached.

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 Courthouse.

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 information.

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 sentences.

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 the author.

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 failure.

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 the defendant.

* 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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