County Court System Goes Paperless and Mobile

0514_casestudySeated in Ithaca, NY, Tompkins County is a progressive community of just over 100,000 people who prize environmental and social sustainability. “Our county vehicles are hybrids, our new county buildings are all LEED certified and we are always on the lookout for environmentally friendly products,” explains Maureen Reynolds, deputy county clerk.

In fact, Reynolds explains, one of the county’s major goals for the next few years is to enable 10 to 20 percent of its workforce to work from home at least part of the time. “From a green perspective, this will allow us to cut back on the number of people driving to work, and it will save energy at the county buildings,” she says.

“It’s also very important from a disaster recovery perspective to enable an ‘untethered workforce,’” Reynolds adds. “If another Hurricane Sandy were to hit, we want to be sure that key employees can still do their jobs from their homes. My biggest fear is to be on the front page of the paper under the caption, ‘Why didn’t they take care of this?’”

She also notes that many employees need to be able to do their jobs from the field, including county judges, the district attorney (DA) and the assistant district attorneys (ADAs). “We have five county judges who need to be able to access case files from the bench, and do rotate from court to court on occasion. Going paperless has had a lot of benefits for them.”

The path to paperlessness
The Tompkins County Clerk’s Office started scanning records back in 2001. Over a nine-year period, it scanned 193 years’ worth of land and court records. Based on its success with scanning, county administration asked the clerk’s office to take over the county records center, an old building with 9,000 boxes of records and an antiquated tracking database.

“They told us we wouldn’t get any additional budget or staff. I actually called my IT director and cried a little before asking, ‘What can we do?’” says Reynolds.

She explains, “We knew we had the on-staff knowledge, expertise, IT support, IT infrastructure and vendor partnerships to turn this program around—but we needed an enterprise system, so we started looking for one. Our CIO had seen a Laserfiche demo when he was interviewing vendors for our County Legislature’s meeting minute software. He thought it would work well for our countywide records needs.”

Reynolds notes that the original plan was to simply put barcodes on the boxes to keep better track of them. However, “once we saw what Laserfiche could do, we decided to scan all 9,000 boxes in the records center, destroy the paper and eventually tear down the building.”
Tompkins County had been planning to either build a new records center or renovate the existing building, which would have cost somewhere between $2.3 million and $6 million. Analysis showed that spending between $400,000 and $500,000 for scanning, software upgrades and IT infrastructure updates would save Tompkins County between $2.3 million and $5.5 million dollars. “After that,” Reynolds says, “it was pretty clear that digitizing the records was the way to go.”

Paperless court cases
For the County Clerk’s office, back-scanning old court records had a big impact. As the owner of the county’s court records, the clerk’s office used to be charged with sifting through paper files in the dilapidated records center.

Now, all civil and criminal cases from 1817 through 2009 have been digitized. Using Laserfiche’s online, self-serve document portal (which Tompkins County has configured for both public and secure internal search and retrieval), judges, law clerks and legal secretaries can instantly view closed cases with the click of a button — saving a great deal of time for the County Clerk’s Office employees.

According to Reynolds, the judges have been using the portal to view archived case files on their laptops and mobile devices such as iPads for the last three years. This has been particularly helpful when a judge needs to review the cases associated with a repeat offender.

Within the last year, the County Clerk’s Office has begun handling the day-forward scanning of all court-related paperwork, which has eliminated delays in paperwork processing. “In the past, people could file their papers in our office, with a court clerk or with a judge,” Reynolds explains.

Today, everything goes through the County Clerk’s Office, whether it is paper or digital, and it is processed the day it is received. Paper documents are scanned and integrated with a land management system that time- and date-stamps the documents. After that, documents are emailed to the judges right away.

“Tompkins County handles approximately 1,400 civil cases and 4,500 criminal cases a year, so processing delays could really slow things down,” says Reynolds. “The judges appreciate having timely, anywhere access to the files they need to see.”

District Attorney’s office goes digital
Piggybacking on the success of the Tompkins County Court, the District Attorney’s office is also looking to go paperless. “Our ADAs have to drag giant boxes of files into court. Oftentimes, they’re travelling to the town courts at night, when no one is in the DAs office, so making everything available to them in a digital format will make their jobs so much easier,” says Reynolds.

According to Loren Cottrell, deputy director of IT services at Tompkins County, the DA’s office is currently looking to migrate from a legacy case management system onto NYPTI, a state system developed by the New York State Prosecutors Training Institution. Laserfiche will be integrated with NYPTI such that case documents will be created in NYPTI and archived. Documents will be born digital, eliminating the need for paper records completely.

“Oneida County has integrated Laserfiche with NYPTI, and we are hoping to learn from what they’ve done and implement our new system this summer,” says Cottrell.

Prior to implementation, Tompkins County will run the project through its “Smart Office Initiative,” in which it partners with Tompkins Cortland Community College to analyze existing processes, document what the new processes will look like and get buy-in from all stakeholders.

“All new or major IT initiatives in Tompkins County are required to go through the Smart Office Initiative,” explains Greg Potter, IT director for the county. “For process-driven projects, the departments need to go through this initiative to define their processes before we’re willing to jump in on the IT side. It helps us determine who’s ready and who’s going to succeed.”

Reynolds adds that, whenever a department is looking to go paperless, it’s important to study the department’s folder structure and analyze its workflows. “You can have the best software in the world, but if you don’t make your end user comfortable with it, they will not use it,” she explains.

Potter notes that while the IT department is mapping out the streamlined case management process and preparing to integrate Laserfiche and NYPTI, it is also expanding the Wi-Fi access points in the courtrooms so that the DA and ADAs will be able to access their case files using mobile devices.

Reynolds is confident that the new paperless system will work well for the DA’s Office. “Judges sometimes have the reputation for being conservative and slow to embrace change, but our judges took to our paperless approach very easily,” she says. “When I first told them about (the new platform), I said, ‘Trust me, you’re going to love it.’ And they do!”

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Workflow