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Dorothy Brown’s office debuts upgrade to criminal court computers to wide ridicule

Tuesday, November 26, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Megan Crepeau

The rollout of a long-awaited upgrade to Cook County courts’ archaic case management system by beleaguered Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown’s office has caused disarray at the county’s main criminal courthouse on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

Attorneys and clerks interviewed by the Tribune since the rollout two weeks ago complained the supposed advancement has instead resulted in incomplete case information, poorly trained staff and lengthy delays in securing the most basic documentation.

One lawyer said he waited 45 minutes for paperwork that under the old system would have taken just a few moments to obtain. With some routine tasks now taking far more clicks to complete, clerks reportedly have worked late into the night to finish the same workload they routinely completed during a normal workday.

Brown’s office, long maligned for its outdated and inefficient handling of public records, declined to answer questions about the new system and its shaky implementation.

 

While the rollout hasn’t yet been carried out in many of the court’s major divisions, including most civil courtrooms located in the downtown Daley Center, the new system debuted earlier this month at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, where the stakes are particularly high.

“No one’s expecting a criminal search with Amazon Prime functionality here, but peoples’ liberty is literally on the line,” said Sean O’Brien, a former Cook County prosecutor-turned-criminal defense attorney who has worked in the criminal courts for more than a decade. "It’s insane that they don’t have better access.”

Last Friday, crime victim Barbara Foster left the circuit clerk’s office at the courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue more confused than when she came in.

The 42-year-old had gone there to find out which courtroom she should go to that day for a hearing involving the woman charged with robbing her at knifepoint over the summer. First, she had to wait 15 minutes in a line that stretched nearly out the door — highly unusual for a normally sleepy Friday morning and a sign of the confusion the rollout has caused.

Then the clerk at the counter struggled to help her, finding several defendants in computer records with the same name as the offender, but Foster didn’t believe any of them was her assailant.

“The police told me to come today," said a frustrated Foster, who wondered aloud if she needed to check every courtroom in the seven-story courthouse to find her case. "This is taking too much time.”

David Gaeger, another attorney who has practiced at 26th and Cal for years, said it wouldn’t be surprising for the rollout to involve some kinks, but this isn’t a courthouse with people simply fighting over money.

"We have a situation here where there are people who are accused of crimes,” Gaeger said. “You’re talking about thousands of people that need an efficient court clerk system.”

To the surprise of veteran lawyers interviewed by the Tribune, the new criminal case management system does not even provide for electronic filing of court documents — the standard in federal courts for years and already mandatory in many Cook County civil divisions.

By contrast, Cook County’s criminal courts still rely partly on paper, as well as an innovation more than two centuries old — carbon paper to make copies of the paper filings.

Attorney Frank Himel said he walked into a courtroom at 26th and Cal since the rollout to find three different clerks gathered around a computer trying to figure out the new system.

Himel compared the rollout to the wrought iron fences and decorative fountain erected outside the Leighton courthouse years ago, a cosmetic update that didn’t fix any of the real problems confronting the building, which marked its 90th anniversary earlier this year.

“Meanwhile, 97% of the bathrooms in the building don’t have hand towels," he said.

Jalyne Strong, a spokeswoman for Brown’s office, declined to answer any questions, including how much the new system cost.

In a 2017 news release, the vendor, Tyler Technologies, touted a $36 million agreement with Cook County to revamp the circuit clerk’s computer system from top to bottom.

Brown, whose office has been under the cloud of a federal public corruption probe into bribes-for-jobs allegations that ensnared two employees, recently announced she would not run for reelection next year after nearly two decades at the helm.

For a story in February 2018 about her office’s antiquated record keeping, Brown told the Tribune that her ultimate goal was to implement an “interactive” system in which judges and attorneys could perform most of their duties electronically, finally ending a longstanding reliance on ink and paper.

But the new system does not appear to get any closer to that goal.

Furthermore, Brown had said a complete overhaul would be completed by last March, but the rollout occurred eight months later.

In declining to answer questions, Strong said the office would withhold comment until the system’s official debut, claiming that the rollout earlier this month was only a “soft launch.”

Strong would not say when the official launch would take place.

In the meantime, the old system for criminal case management appears to have been completely disabled.

“I’ve never been to a soft opening of a restaurant that’s open to the general public,” Gaeger noted.

Gaeger had to wait 45 minutes last week to obtain a certified copy of a case disposition — standard paperwork that under the old system would have taken about three minutes, he estimated.

The snafus also impacted Central Bond Court, which handles dozens of felony cases each day. A judge, trying to set bond for one defendant last week, struggled to find basic information on the computer about past charges he faced.

“This new system has changed up everybody, I understand,” Judge Arthur Wesley Willis lamented.

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com



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