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State eyes court info upgrade

Posted Sept. 27, 2009, at 9:10 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Using nearly $2.5 million in federal recovery act funds, the state court system expects in three years to move the handling of criminal cases into the digital age, a move Chief Justice Leigh Saufley says has huge implications for the state.

“This will build a pretty extraordinary criminal information system for state government and the courts,” she said last week. “This is really good news that will move us forward towards where we should be.”

Saufley said the funds will build on existing systems and will allow a way for all of the paper that is used in a criminal matter to be reduced dramatically. She said it will allow the various parts of the criminal justice system to communicate digitally on cases and will increase the efficiency not only of the courts, but other parts of the system as well.

“This will help everyone in the system,” she said. “Everybody will benefit.”

Saufley said the goal is to allow prosecutors, lawyers for defendants as well as law enforcement agencies to file necessary documents and access documents through an electronic system. While she has no study to quantify what savings may be achieved, she is convinced the savings will be significant.

“Just think about all of the paper that is generated that is then re-entered manually by the courts, by the defense bar and by the police,” she said, “That is a lot of time for a lot of people.”

Saufley did not know what the total cost would be of completely computerizing the state court system, but previous estimates that included integrating court computers with law enforcement agencies and district attorneys offices have been in the range of $5 million. The $2.5 million in stimulus funds will enable significant prog-ress to be made, Saufley said.

Attorney General Janet Mills, who has been both a prosecutor and a defense attorney, said computerization will be a huge benefit to all those involved in the system. She said lawyers across the state are already familiar with the electronic systems used by the federal courts.

“I am not aware of any glitches in that system and it has been very successful,” she said. “Everybody loves it.”

Mills said the current paper system is very inefficient. She said there will be savings in staff time and in postage as filings are made electronically and not by paper.

“The parties to a case can share motions and filings all at the same time,” she said. “It’s time we caught up with the rest of the country.”

Tim Zerillo, a Portland lawyer who is president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that if the state system is modeled on the existing federal system, it will be a huge improvement. He said currently there is “a world of difference” between a federal criminal case and a state criminal case.

“Everything is online and electronically copied to all of the parties by a keystroke,” he said. “I am thrilled the state courts are moving to an electronic system.”

Saufley said the new system also will allow law enforcement officers to send all criminal summonses, including traffic tickets, to the courts electronically. She said the new computer system is aimed at allowing the digital filing of criminal matters, but the same software could be used to allow civil infractions to be filed with the court violations bureau.

“I don’t know if all the others involved in the system will be able to take advantage of that,” she said.

Many law enforcement agencies already have laptop computers installed in vehicles that allow officers to access motor vehicle and agency records. The computers already have saved a lot of time by allowing officers to fill out paperwork while in their cruisers instead of waiting to return to a station.

“Anytime we can streamline the process and get electronic we will be better off,” said Maine State Police Chief Col. Patrick Fleming. “It will also help officer safety by reducing the time a trooper is standing beside a car on the highway.”

He said other states already have the capacity to access far more databases and file criminal complaints from laptops in cruisers. He said the units already have improved efficiency and enabling more items to be processed electronically will increase that efficiency.

Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said many local police agencies are using computers in patrol vehicles for a variety of purposes.

“Any time you can automate a process and reduce paperwork, it is a help,” he said.

Saufley said that building the new computer system will take time and will probably take longer than she would like, but she believes it will be a major benefit to the entire criminal justice system when it is completed.

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