Courts and Law

Courting trouble – Budget cuts push Wake County courts back in time

“Must know DOS.”

That’s a “help wanted” job description Wake County Superior Court Clerk Lorrin Freeman might post for staff in her office, if she could hire – an infrequent occurrence these past few years.

Remember DOS? That’s the computer operating system many of us first worked on during the 1980s.

It’s also the operating system – or a system just like it designed and built in-house by the Administrative Office of the Courts in the early 80s – that’s still in use at the Wake County Courthouse.

“These systems are very archaic,” said Freeman, who’s been the clerk of court since 2006.  “They’re difficult to interpret quite frankly, especially if you’ve grown up using Windows. And it’s easy to miss things when you don’t know how they work.”

But Freeman and her team will have to take that outdated technology with them in a few months when they move into the new county-funded, state-of-the-art-courthouse a few blocks away.

“The new courthouse is very much next-generation equipped for technology in the courtrooms,” she said. “But we don’t have the backside infrastructure.”

A decades-old computer system is just one of the several ways budget slashing over the past four years has sent the Wake County courts careening back in time.

Workload numbers say the courts there need 220 people to process the more than 200,000 cases filed there during the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Right now they have only 157 employees.

That includes judges, the lack of which – especially in the district courts – is pushing hearing and trial dates further back on the calendar.

And programs designed with long-term efficiencies in mind, like drug court, are about to go under.

“We’re in trouble,” said Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens.  “We’re hurt bad.”

Still a paper system

Cases get started in the court system with a filing in court. And that filing, in most cases, originates on a computer.

To most of us working in a digital world, that’s where it should stay. An attorney drafts a complaint or other court document on his computer, saves it there and then files it with the court electronically. That’s how it’s done in the federal courts.

But in Wake County and courts elsewhere across the state, paper is still the coin of the realm.  Rather than pushing the send button, the attorney prints the document out and takes it to the courthouse for filing – where the paper piles up.

“We spend a tremendous amount of time chasing paper — if you think about the thousands of cases filed within the system, and all the different sheets of paper that go with that,” Freeman said.

Keeping up with all that paper takes bodies the courts just don’t have.

Freeman was hopeful a few years ago, when Wake County rolled out an electronic filing pilot program for civil cases – one of three counties to do so.

“That’s a project that has great potential for efficiency and effectiveness,” Freeman said. “We very much believed at the time that in 18 months we’d be fully operational with that, accepting all filings and maintaining case records electronically. But the money was simply not there.”

The Wake County criminal division is still using the mainframe database put in the field in 1986, and its civil court indexing system is the exact same system used in 1990.

“We’re operating with computer systems that are 20, 25 years old,” Freeman said. “And the amount of time we spend looking for things – if we had electronic storage of cases it would significantly revolutionize things.”

Back in time

For Judge Stephens, going back 25 years might not be such a bad thing, at least in one respect:  He had more help then.

“In 1984 when I came here, we had 4 resident judges and 2 special judges, for a total of 6 judges,” Stephens said.  “And we had 2 staff members in our office who greeted the public, answered the telephone and helped the judges. Now we have 12 judges and one staff member.  I would like to at least go back to what I had in 1984.“

Today, that one staff person works in the reception area as the face of the court to the public, doing everything for 12 judges, even though the caseload has doubled, Stephens added.

“She greets the public, answers the phone, does correspondence, pulls files,” he said.  And when she’s out of the office, the judges are doing it themselves.

“I don’t mind that,” Stephens said, “but the public is not well-served in that situation.”

Though everyone in the system is doing more, cuts in some areas have created inefficiencies in others.

Elimination of funding for programs like drug courts – proven to reduce recidivism over the long haul – doesn’t mean those cases go away; they just get redistributed in the system.

“One of the frustrating things about cutting programs like drug court,” said Chief District Court Judge Robert Rader, “is that it took a lot of work to build it and get it to the point where it’s functional. And now here we are, facing possible elimination.”

Getting it back up and running will require all-the-more resources. The same is true for the demise of the electronic filing pilot program and other technology cuts.  Working on old, slow systems and chasing paper just eats up time and manpower – both at a premium in the courts.

And though everyone is doing more, most employees are making less, in real dollars, Freeman said.

“I have people who have worked in the court system for four plus years now who are still making below 30 thousand dollars a year, and in this county parking is not provided,” she added. “Many of my folks have to leave here and work second jobs, weekend jobs – which makes it more challenging to keep a workforce and keep them focused on the work here when they’ve got so many other responsibilities.”

Racing the clock

If you’re a parent in the midst of a divorce being told that your request for a custody order can’t be heard until May, or one of the some 700 DWI defendants with a case ready for trial but no date in sight, you’re likely not happy to learn that staffless judges are answering phones in the reception area.

But reduced staff is not the main reason for such delays.  The district courts need more judges, said Chief Judge Rader.  “I could put three or four to work tomorrow, and keep everyone of them busy five days a week.”

District court judges resolve everything from traffic cases to child support orders to DWI offenses, and for them, Rader said, it’s a constant battle.   “On one hand, they’re trying to be efficient and move the cases through because they want to get them disposed of in a timely manner, but at the same time they want to give people a fair hearing, with the quality of justice that we would all want.”

Domestic court has been the biggest challenge, according to Rader. Families are often in crisis situations when they come to court for custody or child support orders, and need quick help.  Instead, they’re waiting three to four months to get before the judge.

The time to resolve domestic violence, parental neglect and DWI cases is also stretching out because of the sheer number of cases filed.

“Case numbers have dipped the last two years, but that hasn’t happened with the domestic violence and abuse-neglect cases,” Rader said. “Those cases are very time consuming.  And we lead the state in DWIs. ”

Wake County has a courtroom dedicated solely to each of those types of cases, but that’s still not eased the load on the judges.

Efforts to limit actual time before a judge have helped, Rader said.   For example, by his review of Nov. 2012 numbers, the judges were resolving traffic cases within two minutes, on average.

“The problem is that you have 100 cases on a docket,” he said. “We dispose of some cases, some get continued, but then you have the cases to be tried, and you’ve run out of time. You’ll get one or two cases tried per session.  Now if you had two District Attorneys in each courtroom, or another judge, that would help resolve that problem. But you can’t afford it, and the General Assembly controls that number.”

Efforts to limit time before the judge are impractical and unfair, though, when an issue like termination of parental rights is at stake, Rader added.

“We’ve taken so many steps to be more efficient and dispose of cases in a more timely manner, but you get to a point where you can only do so much, and I think we might be getting close to that,” Rader said. ”I don’t need bells and whistles; I just need more court time so people can get their cases heard.”