Pierce Co. Automates the Justice System

In Pierce County, Wash., justice is blind and bit-streamed. The county, anchored by the city of Tacoma and home to some 600,000 people, may have the most sophisticated court system in the United States, thanks to LINX, the Legal Information Network eXchange. The system, which eventually will network the legal community throughout the county, has put the county's 40,000 annual cases literally on a fast track.

LINX is designed to ensure that legal case records enter the county court pipeline only once so that everyone involved has ready access to all the data appropriate to his role in the legal process. If a defendant moves all the way through the system-from booking to trial, conviction, prison and, later, probation-downstream departments may supplement an entered record, but they do not have to re-create it from scratch or maintain the record independently.

Prosecutors use LINX to make police reports, crime scene information and arrest details available immediately to multiple agencies. The system also automatically organizes courtroom calendars, tracks subpoenas and lets users find defendant and case information quickly. Scheduling components in LINX also generate automatic e-mail messages to county legal offices and create hard-copy notices of proceedings for victims and their families.

Single Data Entry

Before LINX, various user communities manually processed case-related information or used a stand-alone database system. "LINX did not replace a given system or systems," said Terry Hale, director of information services for the county. "There was nothing integrated about it, and to whatever extent the various offices tracked the data, each was re-creating information being processed elsewhere."

LINX now tracks and manages some 85,000 cases related to more than 95,000 civil and criminal charges, 90,000 people and 270,000 proceedings. By providing a single point of entry for data into the legal system, Pierce County officials estimate they have reduced the number of annual data entries from 700,000 to 200,000-a ratio of 31/2-to-1. When the county's new jail comes on-line and the district court's probation office is on-line to the LINX data set, the redundant data entry savings ratio will rise to 4-to-1.

Beyond the benefit in sheer work reduction, the data is now far more productive. Time-consuming tasks that used to be fulfilled inconsistently-such as victim notification-are now automated. "The state's constitution requires the prosecutor's office to notify victims of all court dates and events relevant to their case," said Sue Vlosich, administrative manager for the prosecutor's office. "That generally required us to send out up to 200 letters a day. Before LINX, that was done manually or not at all."

Components

LINX is composed of 150 application windows built with PowerSoft Corp.'s PowerBuilder Enterprise, a client/server application development tool. The network is Novell Inc. and Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol connected to a Sybase Inc. SQL Server System 10 running on a Unix Sun Microsystems Inc. Solaris Sparcserver 1000.

Hale, who pegged LINX development costs at about $1 million, conceded that early in the project some user groups expressed doubts about its value. "We've never done a formal [return on investment] calculation for LINX," he said. "But there is now no doubt among any of the user communities that LINX is a tremendous benefit delivering tangible productivity savings."

The county is now marketing the application to other cities and counties, not to turn a profit but to defray its development costs. Ironically, one sales obstacle appears due to the "not invented here" syndrome, especially from other government information technology departments. "I think some IT department inquiries are from folks trying to figure out what we did so they can build their own system," Hale said. "They simply don't appreciate that to do this now would probably take close to $2 million and up to two years."

The state now has a pilot project under way to build a gateway to various stand-alone state applications controlled by the Office of the Administrator of the Courts. When completed, the gateway will enable LINX to extract data from various non-interoperable state systems and integrate it with local databases.

Barry D. Bowen is an industry analyst and writer with Bowen Group Inc., based in Bellingham Wash. He can be reached at xeno@bgroup.com.

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