North Carolina Judges CourtFlow a Success

North Carolina is one of the few states in which criminal superior court judges rotate from district to district, forcing courtroom clerks in the state's 100 counties to be extraordinarily fast and accurate with the forms that require a judge's signature before a ruling can be enforced.

Despite the clerks' best efforts, sometimes the forms-such as an order to pay restitution and/or court costs, setting a jail sentence or a probation ruling-simply cannot be filed and signed before the judge moves on to the next district. Instead, an order had to be mailed, sometimes two or three times, before a justice can sign and return it to make a court action official.

This process does not even take into account the fact that the state's criminal superior court clerks have to enter all court proceeding information on separate forms for the judges and for the statewide network, resulting in tedious and time-consuming duplication.

But these problems are dis-appearing faster than the court clerks' lightning-quick typing abilities, thanks to North Carolina's new CourtFlow system, which is being installed statewide in every county's criminal district court.

CourtFlow, a PC-based system used by courtroom clerks in the state's criminal superior courts to enter court proceedings, is designed to reduce redundancies in data entry and to produce more judicial forms online, said Tom Nevlud, business systems manager at the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) in North Carolina.

The system prints out completed forms that are ready for a judge's signature and provides an interface with the state's Automated Criminal/Infractions System (ACIS), which contains all information from court proceedings.

Information from ACIS is downloaded before the day's court proceedings and has all the information about cases and their participants organized and pre-fielded on the system. After a case is completed, the revised data is uploaded into the system, which is used statewide by law enforcement and judicial personnel.

"We wanted an application that would streamline the judgments and results of proceedings so the clerks didn't have to double enter everything," Nevlud said. "We needed to increase efficiency while decreasing the time it took to do these things."

The system was developed by the Court Management and Information Services Division of the Raleigh-based AOC.

Before CourtFlow, clerks had to type all required information from proceedings on blank fields multiple times and then update the information in the state's database, said Brenda White, assistant clerk of the superior court in Buncombe County. White has been using the CourtFlow system for almost a year and despite a few glitches, she called it "a wonderful time saver.

"It was a little difficult to get used to [at first] because you work so long to build up your speed so much, but the benefits far outweigh the negatives to it," White said. "You prepare the judgment, the judge signs it, and then you go back and dispose it. It's automatically uploaded [to the state system]...and before we had to enter everything twice."

White noted that the system has eliminated time lost from having to mail forms that were not complete at the end of a traveling judge's session. "Sometimes we'd mail the information, and by the time it got there, it was two weeks later and matters like a prisoner's probation couldn't go through until the judge got [and signed] the forms," White said.

Implementation of the system began in the summer of 1998 in three pilot counties: Wake, Orange and Cumberland. By the end of September 1999, 52 counties were up and running, and all 100 counties expected to be using the system by next summer, Nevlud said.

Teaching county clerks how to use CourtFlow has fallen largely on the shoulders of AOC trainers. Two trainers have been there from the beginning, a third has recently been hired, and a fourth may also be on the way, Nevlud said.

Audie Dale, a business systems analyst and court services trainer at AOC, is one of the two original CourtFlow trainers. She said that once word started to spread about the system, the response was enthusiastic.

However, the change did cause some uneasiness in certain locales, Dale said. "The actual users are extremely excited about it, but there were some who were more afraid of change and nervous that they lacked computer skills and abilities to use the system."

But CourtFlow is Microsoft Corp. Windows 95-based, as opposed to the text-based state mainframe, and "by the time they come to training and get their questions answered, they're really excited," Dale said. "By the end of the first day, the anxiety is gone, if they even had any, because they realize it's not difficult to learn what information is used because it's information they already know."

The time it takes to put the system in place depends on the size and location of the county and the frequency that criminal superior court is in session, Dale said.

Training usually takes a day and a half to two days before the clerks are ready to use the system.

In addition to streamlining the filing and judgment process, CourtFlow also has proven to be particularly useful to North Carolina's law enforcement personnel. Police now can access more timely information on an individual because criminal records are updated almost immediately.

Judges, clerks of court, attorneys and public defenders, as well as employers who require criminal record checks, are benefiting from CourtFlow's increased efficiency, Nevlud said. The departments of Correction and Motor Vehicles also have tapped into CourtFlow since its inception.

A final key component that CourtFlow has provided to clerks and other users is its flexibility. When legislative changes, particularly to forms, require overall changes in the system, CourtFlow's programming staff makes the necessary updates and distributes them to the counties. An automatic online distribution of changes is being worked on, and modifications to the training process and to the user manuals also are provided, Nevlud said.

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