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Rhode Island court officials are poised to ask the General Assembly for $7.7 million to enhance the quality, workstations, software and computer infrastructure for more than 400 computers in the state court system. In fiscal year 1994, court officials began strategic planning and budgeting for projects that involved replacing the records management systems for both civil and criminal computers, and compliance issues with Y2K, and now, due to outdated technology and databases, the civil and criminal systems are positioning themselves for a renovation. Due to rapid changes in technology and the unlimited options the projects present, the funding and implementation plans have continuously been updated over the last seven years, according to John H. Barrette, state court administrator. Barrette met last week with members of the Rhode Island House and Senate subcommittees on public safety, the first step in reviewing the court’s budget request. The court overall is asking the legislature for $68.3 million for the next fiscal year. The court’s budget represents 1.6 percent of the overall state budget. The court’s objectives are clear: replace the outdated software and hardware currently in the courts with upgraded communication networks accessible to the public, administrative personnel, clerks, lawyers, and judges in both criminal and civil courts. The proposed changes to the computer system come in two phases. The criminal system project, known as Justice Link (J-Link), has been in the works since 1994 promoting an interagency system to be funded through the Rhode Island Supreme Court that would provide an electronic transfer of information from the beginning stages of an arrest to the final decisions of the courts. A portion of the $7.7 million request would be used to expand J-Link. “If there were an incident where a police officer made an investigation, and the investigation leads to an arrest and then into custody, all the events of the situation would be documented online in the police department. The electronic data would then be transferred to the courts and now the courts have all the arrest information,” explained Tracey Emerton-Williams, executive director of the Rhode Island Judicial Systems and Sciences Department (RIJSS). ELECTRONIC TRAIL Depending on the nature of the offense, that case could move on to the district or supreme court, and the original electronic file moves on to the specific jurisdiction. “As the case moves on through the courts, so does the electronic file,” said Emerton-Williams. “Public defenders, state police, the attorney general, clerks and law officials all have access to this file internally through the computer systems to follow the case.” On the civil side, the court systems are still running on old platforms from a company no longer in business — if the computer systems fail, the court systems cannot be retrieved; therefore, the civil courts are asking for intracourt hardware and software upgrades, Barrette said. “The civil court computer systems are running on word processing software that is not used anymore,” he noted. “The new systems we are requesting have word processing and financial models inherit in their systems.” Barrette explained that current information sent to him through e-mail with word or spreadsheet attachments cannot be opened, but instead need to be forwarded to other members of the court systems who have updated computers. “Outside of the government, everything we do is by remote access, for instance banking. We should be doing this in the government, and we are requesting the funds to supply the current software that we need to do this,” he said. “We are requesting that we replace an archaic system. We need a user-friendly and totally e-government system.” According to Emerton-Williams, the current civil system computer programs, including both domestic and civil cases, have technology-based systems from the early ’80s that need to be replaced with state-of-the-art technology and migrating. “Eventually, we should be able to pay driving tickets online with a credit card, or come to court to fight the ticket. Either way, the case is documented and transferred electronically through the court system,” she said. The long-term goal for the civil computer systems enhancement is to be able to access the civil court’s database online from anywhere the Internet is available. In order to be able to access the database, there must be an infrastructure available in the court system allowing Internet browsing, Emerton-Williams said. “I like to describe it as building a house,” she said. “You need the foundation, then you put up the walls, then you include the plumbing. Internet access is like the curtains on the windows — it makes the house look nice, but we need to put the windows up before we can hang the curtains.” Emerton-Williams sees the civil courts in a legal risk if the current technology stays in place because there are no parts available to replace the outdated systems. “If the current system crashes there is nothing to replace the computer parts. What is it worth to the public not to be able to process our civil system?” she asks. “If we can’t get funding from the General Assembly and the computers crash, what happens? The department requires the enhancement of these systems.”

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