During the Great Recession, state court budgets took a beating. States like California and Minnesota cut budgets so severely that they had to shut down certain operations. Elsewhere, dozens of states instituted hiring freezes meaning there were fewer clerks, administrative staff, and interpreters to handle increasing legal issues caused by the recession.
Paul De Muniz, now retired Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, gave clear context to the impact of these cuts. “…[R]evenue shortfalls in many states are so great that proposed cuts to judicial budgets can imperil the judiciary’s constitutional responsibility to administer justice impartially, completely, and without delay,” he stated in a 2011 speech.
Since that dire pronouncement, only modest improvements have been made to court budgets according to the National Center for State Courts. There remains a national need for scalable, low-cost solutions to overcome budget and access shortfalls. Technology, unlike new staff hires, is a primary way to scale court access, functionality, and efficiency.
For example, in Mohave County, Arizona, court administrators built an Internet enabled, public kiosk to improve court access in the rural county. The kiosk, which is 70 miles from the county courthouse and on the other side of the Grand Canyon, allows users to access the county’s courtrooms to make remote court appearances, pay fines, get forms, and file documents.
The kiosk is innovative, but it still requires people to leave their homes to access it. Other technologies are bringing court access directly to a citizen’s electronic device. Created at the University of Michigan, Matterhorn allows for police, judges, court administrators, and prosecutors the ability to process high-volume cases without the individual ever stepping foot into a courthouse, which saves the individual time and hassle.
For a better sense of how platforms like Matterhorn improve court workflow, compare two programs looking to cut down on warrants in Baltimore, Maryland and Grand Rapids, Michigan.
In Baltimore, the warrant recall process requires that a person meet with or write to the court clerk. If appearing in court, the clerk walks into the courtroom and hands the file to the judge, the person meanwhile waits for the judge’s docket to clear at which point the judge has the opportunity to grant or deny forgiveness or schedule a recall hearing up to ten days later for more serious cases. This is onerous for both the court and the individual.
By comparison, the court in Grand Rapids uses Matterhorn for pre-warrant forgiveness, the opportunity to rectify a missed court date before a bench warrant is issued. Instead of visiting the court, people sign on to the court’s website and provide the reason for missing their court date. The court clerk then decides whether or not to accept the explanation, resolving the issue, and a new court date is set.
It takes mere minutes for each party to successfully deal with the matter. Resolving this issue online has already led to 349 fewer outstanding warrants in the last eight months, saving a potential total of 1,624 hours among police, courts, and corrections. This is not to mention the time and headache saved by the individual that avoids yet another trip to court.
This simple, common sense solution expands beyond warrant forgiveness. In Washtenaw County, Michigan, the court saw informal hearing times drop from 157 minutes to 27 minutes with the implementation of Matterhorn. Their total processing time shrank from two months to just seven and a half days. Similarly, it took Michigan’s 30th Court District 21 days to set a date for a civil infraction hearing. Now, the time between ticket issuance and closing the ticket averages six days.
These two technologies provide a glimpse into what the future of court administration will look like. To be clear, technology is not a panacea for the numerous challenges facing American courts. However, by embracing simple and proven technologies, courts will be able to provide easier access to citizens while managing their bottom line.
Jason currently works with the University of Michigan Law School to establish and evaluate pilot implementations of Matterhorn.