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Computer System Frustrates State Attorneys
posted 05/31/00 By Tom Spalding STAFF WRITER
State attorneys in Sarasota County had to resort to an antiquated paper card file system recently to ensure that people arrested got lawyers and a speedy trial.
They used card files while their piece of a new $5 million computer system which they had hoped would perform such routine tasks - stood idle.
That was the final straw for the state attorney's office, and the public defender, which will drop participation in the troubled Criminal Justice Information System, or CJIS.
As of July 1, they plan to switch to their own computers systems with software capable of keeping track of their own cases and attorney-client information.
"The data is inaccurate and is costing us money," said Henry Lee, chief assistant state attorney. "It's adversely affecting our operation, the way we work."
CJIS, launched six years ago and online since 1997, was designed to integrate lawyers with the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office and the local Clerk of Circuit Court, which maintains records ranging from marriages to mortgages. The experience in Sarasota has been a far cry from the success Charlotte County has enjoyed. A Web site there that is part of a $5.7 million single-database computer network won a national award last year at the Court Technology Conference.
In Sarasota, the state attorney and public defender told top Sarasota County officials last week that they wanted out. Lee said the new computers were a hassle because of inaccurate and outdated information.
Lee said the 12th Judicial state attorney's office, which is made up of Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties, did not receive about $60,000 that the circuit probably was entitled to in the 2000-01 budget because the new CJIS couldn't perform a simple records search to demonstrate the heavy state attorney caseload, which the state required. That money could have paid the salaries of up to three people. The public defender's office, which represents indigent clients, lost half that amount plus an employee.
"The data wasn't current or available," a frustrated Public Defender Elliott Metcalfe Jr. said.
The Sarasota County Sheriff's Office and the Sarasota clerk of circuit court will continue to use their component of CJIS.
However, th0e new defections have left officials wondering whether CJIS will ever perform as intended a single-database, paperless system that a judge could access from the bench. Even the county government's guru thinks the state attorney and public defender made a good move by opting out now.
"I'm not at all surprised. We've been talking about the pros and cons of staying with CJIS or leaving," said Ellis Burns, a county employee and project coordinator for information system. "They are probably making wise decisions."
He blamed the original vendor for being unable to deliver on promises. California-based Maxwell Technologies brought in new terminals but couldn't figure out how to make the software work properly to avoid glitches of information and errors. It opted out of its contract with the county this year and had to refund $1.3 million to the county to compensate for equipment problems and delays.
The computer system was supposed to have the sort of high-tech software replacing many different software systems that didn't "talk" to each other, were out of date and had Year 2000 problems, Clerk of Court Karen Rushing said.
Maxwell was replaced, but the software problems continued.
The bugs began in May 1999, when the Clerk of the Circuit Court's Office, the final agency to join CJIS, entered older cases into the system and updated all kinds of information. The results were bad data and thousands in unbudgeted increased overtime for court employees.
"In some respects, what we had before was slow, but at least it was reliable," said Sarasota County Sheriff Geoff Monge. "I think everybody in the whole process is frustrated."
People are able to view CJIS' public records on the Internet, and whether taxpayers' money was wasted, no one will say. Officials still hope to perhaps find some way to link all four agencies.
"I would like to have the system running, you know, as perfectly as one can expect for the least amount of money," Rushing said.
-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), May 31, 2000