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Milwaukee court ditches paper for progress

By: Jane Pribek//August 22, 2011//

Milwaukee court ditches paper for progress

By: Jane Pribek//August 22, 2011//

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Milwaukee Municipal Court Chief Judge Derek Mosley

When a man asked Milwaukee Municipal Court Chief Judge Derek Mosley recently what it would take to get his drivers’ license reinstated, Mosley had a quick answer for him.

The judge whipped out his smartphone, accessed the municipal court’s digital case management system and told the man the sum he owed in forfeitures. Mosley was then able to advise him of the procedures he could take to expedite reinstatement.

A few years ago, however, the process would have taken much longer.

Without smartphone access to the court’s databases, Mosley wouldn’t have been able to address the man’s question on a Saturday, as he did recently at a community resource fair. Instead, the judge would have had to wait until Monday, when the court offices reopened and a clerk could retrieve the relevant paper file.

But since Milwaukee’s court went almost completely paperless this January, Mosley and his colleagues are able to access records on their smartphones and laptops; whether they’re sitting on the bench or manning a booth at a weekend community event.

“It’s unheard of elsewhere,” Mosley said. “We’re doing big things here.”

The judge said colleagues often express envy when he describes Milwaukee’s system.

Public Policy Forum, a Milwaukee-based nonpartisan research organization, was similarly impressed, and in June awarded the city a “Salute to Local Government” award in the category of “Effective Use of Technology” for its advances in digitizing court materials.

The changes stem from a judges’ meeting about two and half years ago where, when trying to schedule their next meeting, the three judges consulted their smartphones to check availability. They noted how crucial smartphones had become to their daily lives, Mosley said, and realized changes could be made to maximize use of such tools for court staff and users.

Before moving forward, though, the court informally polled court system users to gauge their reactions, said Chief Court Administrator Kristine Hinrichs. They found that a large majority had internet access, most commonly on their smartphones. Internet access via smartphone is inexpensive, she said, and can be pre-purchased without contracts, making it a realistic option for most people.

Court officials then drafted a $1.35 million proposal to improve the court system’s technology, which was vetted by several committees before obtaining final approval by the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.

The proposal emphasized an estimated five-year payback as a result of the initial investment. The changes meant three court positions that were vacant due to retirements did not have to be filled and the cost of paper files, labels and storage would decrease dramatically.

When the court retired the paper file system this year, it found that more than four million files had been produced since the court’s creation in 1975.

Now that every document is scanned and digitally accessible, Mosley and his colleagues are finding things can move a lot quicker, he said.

“One of the best things about the new system is, defendants now get in and out quicker,” he said. “If they have an 8:30 court appearance and need to get to work by 9, we can get you there.”

All relevant materials are ready at the click of a button, he said.

“Instead of having a file in my hand, I have a laptop. When a case is called, the clerk clicks a button and the case pops up on my screen,” Mosley said. “I can view the citation, the driving record, a scan of the fingerprint in case someone says it’s the wrong person, access other cases within our system and letters. It’s amazing.”

The digital system is secure, said Jane Tabaska, the network manager who helped design and implement it, and the city conducts regular, stringent security audits to ensure it stays that way.

If Mosley’s smartphone was lost or stolen, someone else would only be able to view public records, but could not make changes to files or delete them without system authorization. And juvenile files are encrypted for an extra layer of protection.

Next on the court’s ongoing transformation: working to make its website more accessible and user-friendly.

Users can already search for cases online and pay fines via credit card. But in the next two to three months, they could be able to do much more, including entering a plea and selecting a court date, then choosing among morning, afternoon or evening times. Users also will be able to ask for first-time continuances.

Mosley said he and the other judges have had no problem adapting to the changes, and prefer the lighter loads a paperless court brings.

“I go over to circuit court and I still see DAs pulling those big luggage carriers of files and can’t believe it,” he said. “It’s just night and day.”

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