1997 - Report of the Courts of Washington
In late 1997, the Commission on Judicial Efficiency and Accountability, sponsored by the state Board for Judicial Administration, began to design a process that will help courts deal with their day-to-business more effectively and efficiently.
Chaired by retired Boeing executive Doug Beighle, the 20-member Commission held its first meeting in the early part of 1998. Its stated goal: Advance the effective operation of the Washington court system.
Development of a continuing business planning process, one that would feature measurable goals and objectives, completion benchmarks and performance evaluation criteria, is seen as a top goal of the Commission.
Institutionalizing a process for testing new ways of solving old problems--funding, case processing delay, collection of outstanding fines, fees and forfeitures, providing personal security for customers and employees, maintaining aging physical facilities--is another goal of the Commission. The group will establish an ongoing process to allow new efficiency techniques to be tested in one court before adoption by others.
To lay groundwork for their tasks, Commission members divided themselves into three subcommittees: Core Mission, Best Practices and Funding.
Similarly, as enactment of new laws created more work for courts, the responsibilities of the judicial branch of government multiplied. As a result, some court structures are at the breaking point. The Core Mission group is looking at which of these responsibilities and roles properly belong in the judicial system.
The subcommittee's first task was to evaluate the responsibilities given to courts by federal and state constitutions, laws and statutes. It will also examine activities courts have voluntarily accepted over the years. For comparison purposes, the subcommittee will also profile other court systems to see how they have identified and prioritized their key functions.
To determine which are most critical, subcommittee members will conduct a comprehensive study of all functions now performed by Washington's trial and appellate courts. Using this information, the subcommittee will make recommendations for refining the role the judiciary should be expected to fulfill.
The Commission's Best Practices committee will analyze national trial and appellate court performance standards as benchmarks for courts to use in measuring the way they do their work.
The group's most important task: development of a process local courts can use to continually assess, update and improve their performance. To do this work, subcommittee members were drawn from the academic sector, courts, lawyer groups, and the business world.
Should the state agree to pay these expenses, a process must be established to ensure equitable distribution of the resources to cover them. It is the subcommittee's intent to recommend ways that process can be implemented.
The subcommittee's underlying assumption is that some level of efficiency will be realized if state funding becomes available. It is further assumed that identifying those efficiencies will be a condition of state funding. Identification of such efficiencies, and their benefits to the judiciary and the judicial process, has become a key part of the group's work.
The Commission plans to compile the findings of all three of its subcommittees and publish a report, supported by the judiciary and local governments, before January 1999.
Efforts begun in 1997 should lead to a foster care system that is better able to serve its clientele. OAC contracted with the National Center for State Courts to survey the current system. Its report, Final Report/Washington Juvenile Court Improvement Project, was released in 1996.
The report offered sixteen recommendations for improvement. With funding appropriated by Congress in 1995, the steering committee was able to embark on a number of court improvement projects, including:
During 1997, prosecutors used new laws to continue their pursuit of those who choose to drive while drunk or drugged.
The Legislature created a new DUI-related offense--"negligent driving after having consumed alcohol"--in 1996. Proponents promoted the law to give prosecutors more flexibility when negotiating plea agreements with drunk-driving defendants. Unlike the statute it replaced, the new law lists jail time as a possible penalty for the offense.
During 1997, prosecutors made heavy use of the new law. State Judicial Information System (JIS) data show there was a 69 percent increase in DUI charges amended to negligent driving, compared to those filed two years before (4,056 in 1995 to 6,881 in 1997).
During the same period, average monetary penalties imposed by courts for negligent driving increased 70 percent, from $375 in 1995 to $532 in 1997. DUI defendants who plead down to the new offense were given, on average, two days in jail, a term comparable to sentences given first time DUI offenders who record breath-test alcohol levels of more than .15 at the time of arrest.
A combined approach--education and technology is helping Washington courts to reduce the incidence of domestic violence.
In July 1997, the statewide Judicial information System (JIS) incorporated a domestic violence module to offer judges statewide information on victims and defendants in domestic violence cases.
Installed in response to the state Legislature's 1995 Domestic Violence Act, the new DV module is available to all of the state's limited jurisdiction and superior courts. The module links all protective orders--antiharassment, domestic violence, and those issued in family-related actions.
Now, judges, police, prosecutors and community corrections and probation officers can gain timely access to individual domestic violence-related court orders. JIS is electronically linked to courts and police departments statewide, so that justice agencies in most sections of the state can know within hours about protection orders issued in their areas.
Individual court records of serial abusers are linked with their history of other violent offenses. Over time, these comprehensive records will provide justice system professionals with the information they need for early detection of dangerous abusers. Also, statewide view of these records will prevent "competing" orders from being issued by courts.
Training in domestic violence issues for rural and tribal courts is also a priority. Using, federal funds provided by the Violence Against Women's Act, Washington's Gender and, Justice Commission will hold five, daylong workshops in Clallam, Garfield, Okanogan, Pacific, and Yakima Counties in 1998.
Offering a more holistic approach to the problem, local domestic violence "summits" were sponsored by the Commission. A session promoted by a district court judge in Kitsap County in October 1997 was similar to one organized by a superior court judge in the Benton/Franklin Counties area the year before. Almost 200 attended the Kitsap event to plan ways to develop a coordinated response to domestic violence.
When non-English-speaking individuals become involved in the American legal process, they need highly trained interpreters to tell them what others are saying, and to translate their own words into intelligent responses the court can understand.
But language isn't the only barrier they have to hurdle. The workings of the American legal system are often foreign to them, widely different from what they might have dealt with in their homeland.
One of the first states to professionalize its court interpreter process a decade ago, the Washington court system trains and certifies all interpreters who work in the state's courtrooms. Certification assures they are fluent in three languages: English, a foreign language, and the language of American courts.
Soon, with help from a grant from the federal State Justice Institute, the Office of the Administrator of the Courts will publish a book that compares the American justice system with the way justice is obtained in four other countries, plus the Muslim system. Called, Immigrants in Courts, it will discuss common cultural customs and issues unique to immigrants. It will also suggest ways to reduce or eliminate communication obstacles.
According to the book's forward, "the dilemmas faced by criminal defendants are particularly emphasized. This emphasis is in response to today's reality and the emergent situation of many immigrant defendants in criminal courts."
A report published in August 1997 culminated 11 months of study and discussion aimed at improving the way vulnerable individuals--adults and children who cannot act for themselves are treated in court settings.
Study of Washington's guardian ad litem (GAL) system was mandated by the 1996 Legislature. GALs typically represent children in child dependency cases, or adults who are disabled or incompetent to make judgments in their own behalf. Material for the GAL Project Final Report, was supplied by a committee of system professionals and parents who had dealt with GALs. The group was asked to make recommendations about the mandatory use and certification of volunteer guardians, and to review parents' complaints concerning the way GALs worked with their children. The resulting product contains 28 recommendations on how the GAL system should handle alleged incompetent persons, and juvenile dependency and family law cases.
The 1996 legislation also required OAC to develop a comprehensive, statewide training curriculum which would be required of all new guardians ad litems in dependency and family law cases. The resulting product provides a statewide standard of consistency and uniformity to GAL training.
"Information ...is to be disclosed as fully as resources will permit ....No compiled reports will be disseminated which permits a person to be identified as an individual..."
Like other public agencies, courts have experienced dramatic increases in requests for their computer-stored information. Responding to inquiries from the news media, private businesses, research groups, individual citizens, and the state legislature, have become part of the everyday work of courts. Requests go from narrow ("Has Jane Doe filed any protection orders with your court?") to broad ("How many DUI defendants re-offended after they were put on deferred prosecution?"). With JIS policy as their guide, individual courts and the state Office of the Administrator for the Courts often find they must balance the obligation to conduct judicial system business openly, with the responsibility to protect the privacy and safety of individuals.
Court managers must also find ways to balance such requests against other administrative responsibilities--scheduling, trial support, jury management and record-keeping. To reduce the time-taking impact of one-on-one, over-the counter inquiries, some courts supply public access computer terminals to those seeking information. Others set aside special hours for businesses and other frequent users of court data. When allowable, courts that handle large volumes of information requests may charge a fee to recover costs of retrieving the information.
How much information business courts will have to do in the future is uncertain. But one thing is clear: Courts will always be challenged to balance their traditional role as protectors of individuals against calls for more open views of the business of justice.
The way courts deal with mentally ill offenders will change, due to amendments made to state law during the 1998 legislative session.
The changes were initiated by recommendations of a King County, task force chaired by retired Supreme Court Justice Robert Utter. The task force was created after a mentally ill offender stabbed a retired Seattle fire captain to death following a Mariner baseball game. The offender had been released from jail only a few days before, after a court determined his mental illness made him incompetent to stand trial. The 1997 incident focused public attention on the challenges courts face in dealing with mentally ill individuals.
The new law should make information-sharing between criminal justice and mental health professionals easier. It will also allow judges to consider a person's previous history of violent behavior and prior record of civil commitments when deciding whether to involuntarily commit the individual for mental health treatment.
Following a task force recommendation that special mental health courts be established to deal with such cases, the presiding judge of King, County District Court set plans in motion to open such a court before the end of 1998. All those who serve in it--judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and probation officer--will be schooled in mental health issues. The program's twin goals: to handle mentally ill misdemeanants in a way that ensures public safety, while meeting the offender's need for treatment.
"Justice delayed is Justice denied," English lawyer William Gladstone lamented more than a century ago.
To reduce that delay, caseflow management programs are created to move the judicial process along with deliberate speed. To clear up congested court calendars, judges and court managers must be able to gauge the extent of delay, then measure the effect of programs instituted to improve the process.
Washington's superior courts began measuring problems and programs in 1987. Now, computerized reports can tell courts what percentage of their cases comply with state time standards for case resolution.
To construct these reports, OAC uses operational data it regularly collects from courts across the state and stores in the state-level Judicial Information System (JIS). No new or expensive systems are required. Instead, already-collected data are used.
Several superior courts--those in Snohomish, Kitsap, King and Clark Counties--run case management programs using JIS data. Armed with these data, judges and court administrators develop local policies and procedures to improve efficiency. The bottom line: less delay, lower costs of litigation.
A study commissioned by the Washington Supreme Court's Minority and Justice Commission concluded that substantial racial and ethnic disparities exist in pre-trial release and bail setting in King County felony cases.
The study said disparities occur primarily because minority defendants may be charged with more serious offenses and have more extensive criminal histories than white defendants. They may also be less likely to have established ties to the community, such as steady employment, stable residential addresses, and ready references. The report was released in November 1997.
After analyzing nearly 1,700 felony cases, University of Washington researchers concluded that 39 percent of all minority offenders were held in pre-trial custody, compared to 28 percent of all white offenders. At 55 percent, Native American/Indians were the most likely to be detained before trial, followed by Hispanic/Latinos (54 percent), African Americans (36 percent), and Asian Americans (35 percent).
In its report, A Study on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Superior Court Bail and Pre-Trial Detention Practices in Washington, a University of Washington study team headed by George S. Bridges, Ph.D concluded racial and ethnic minority persons were also much less likely than majority persons to be released on personal recognizance, especially without conditions.
Researchers and others attending a news conference to announce results of the study agreed there was no evidence of intentional racial discrimination by courts or judges. Solutions offered included revision of laws to more effectively guide pretrial release decisions and additional resources that would allow courts to obtain more information about individual offenders before pre-trial release decisions were made.
Other Minority and Justice Commission studies include Racial/Ethnic Disparities and Exceptional Sentences in Washington State (1993), and A Study of Social Factors Associated With Decline of Jurisdiction Within Four Counties in the State of Washington (1995). The Commission also published a Work Force Diversity Resource Directory for Washington State Courts (1997).
Washington's four-level Judicial Information Systen (JIS) came on line years before terms like "point and click," "World Wide Web," and "personal computer" became part of our everyday vocabulary. Today, the information-rich, automated operation is one of the most sophisticated systems of its kind nationwide, interconnecting more than 200 state trial and appellate courts, all of which give and get case management and other information at a rate of 2,000 transactions per minute.
Using web-based technology, JIS is expanding court access to its data through creation of an "intranet," a strictly controlled network of case information available only to selected court and authorized justice partner employees. During 1997, work continued on three projects that will use this new technology:
Courts Automated Proceedings Project (CAPS) - an automated case- and resource-scheduling and court calendaring system, primarily for trial courts.
Juvenile Corrections and Integration Project (JCI) - a rewrite and expansion of the Juvenile Information System (JUVIS), for use by juvenile courts, juvenile detention centers, plus adult misdemeanant probation units in district and municipal courts.
Appellate Court Rewrite and Database Integration Project - a rewrite and expansion of the Appellate Court Records and Data System (ACORDS), which serves the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.
Development of the new Intranet means courts and authorized justice partners will receive more secure, reliable, and responsive access to JIS data. As if using the World Wide Web, court administrators will be able to browse the new Intranet, find the correct function, then point and click on an icon to bring it up on their screens.
The changes will be implemented incrementally, first in pilot status, then site-by-site throughout the state. Meanwhile, the rest of JIS functionality will continue to be used in the current manner. Full, statewide implementation will occur as network connections and equipment installations are completed.
ACORDS, or Appellate Court Records and Data System, serves the three divisions of the state Court of Appeals, and the Washington Supreme Court
SCOMIS, or Superior Court Management and Information System, serves the 39 county-level courts of general jurisdiction, or superior courts.
JUVIS, or Juvenile Information System, serves all juvenile courts, which are part of the superior courts.
DISCIS, or District/Municipal Court Information System, serves the state's 183 courts of limited jurisdiction
During a two-week period in March 1998, court technicians counted more than 7,000 "hits" on the Washington Court Homepage. During the four preceding weeks, more than 10,000 individuals visited the homepage.
Well over half of these were individuals looking for opinions handed down by the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. Another 1,300 browsed the state law library's page, and nearly 1,100 went in to download fill-in documents--protection order and marriage dissolution forms. Court rule information was another area of interest to browsers.
Looking for a job? A listing of court system employment opportunities is also available on the homepage.
In Seattle, those owing money for court-ordered fines and fees can pay it via the Internet--even if they do not own a computer. Using city-installed machines in libraries and neighborhood service and community centers, anyone can log on and pay, a fine to Seattle Municipal Court, without having to fight downtown traffic to do it. If they, don't know a "URL" from an "HTML," they can get help from onsite staffers and volunteers.
Look for the Washington Court Homepage at http://www.courts.wa.gov/.
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