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Courts would levy a $5 fee on all civil case filings and criminal fines, including traffic violations, under a proposal heard last week by the Judicial Council of Georgia. The fee, which would fund court automation, is one of the main recommendations in a consultants’ report that criticizes Georgia’s fragmented court technology. The commission also could authorize courts to charge for providing data. The $174,000 report, paid for by the Judicial Council, says Georgia’s approximately 1,100 courts need a “fresh start.” At a meeting last month, the Judicial Council heard from two of the report’s authors, consultants Aaron Estis and Paul Falkenberg of Bearing-Point, formerly KPMG Consulting. The 24-member Judicial Council, which reports directly to the state Supreme Court, is made up of representatives from each class of court and is responsible for administering and improving the courts. The Administrative Office of the Courts implements the policies created by the council and provides general administrative support to the judicial branch. The four organizations that have been charged with getting courts to automate have had little success, according to the report. A new authority, with the power to levy user fees and enforce standards, is needed to create a statewide case management system and a database that can be tapped into by lawyers, law enforcement and court administrators, the report says. Key problems, the report says, are that Georgia’s courts have fragmented methods for maintaining records and standards haven’t been enforceable. David L. Ratley, director of the AOC, said the various groups that have tried to automate the courts didn’t have the money or enforcement power needed to make courts comply with the state’s reporting needs. The four organizations that failed to coordinate court databases are the Georgia Courts Automation Commission, the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Georgia Superior Courts Clerks Cooperative Authority and the Georgia Technology Authority, according to the report. Manual case management processes, which many courts still use, are cumbersome, inefficient and result in lost fee and fine revenue, says the report. Manual docketing also slows the transmission of cases to the appellate courts and stymies efforts by the Georgia Crime Information Center to track criminal records. The center’s database logs criminal records for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, including protective orders, and is linked to the National Crime Information Network. The report is particularly critical of 14 superior courts that still use manual docketing. The report says manual docketing causes discrepancies in reporting data to the AOC. Ratley said the Legislature frequently asks the AOC to produce caseload data and other statistics, which it can’t do without the right information. And accurate caseload counts aren’t just a matter of good bookkeeping. They are crucial to determining which courts qualify for new judgeships. In metro Atlanta, two counties’ Superior Court clerks still have manual docketing — Henry and Rockdale. While the Judicial Council isn’t expected to vote yet on the recommendations for repairing the fragmented data system, the report is seen as an important step, said Ratley, in getting Georgia’s courts to move toward implementing a statewide, integrated criminal and court database. “We need to do our part. Everyone else in Georgia is light years ahead of us in the courts,” said Ratley, who noted that the criminal justice system has had greater success in building a statewide database. The report’s key recommendation is to create a 17-member state Supreme Court commission that would draft automation policy and have the authority to enforce statewide standards. The proposed commission and its staff would cost the state $1.1 million the first year. But by the second year, net revenue would grow to $3.1 million, and in the third year to $6.5 million, according to the report. The costs include hiring three permanent staff members to oversee and enforce statewide standards in case reporting. Under the current system, “achieving agreement among all the stakeholders … is particularly difficult given that many of them have different funding sources, constituents and responsibilities,” the report says. Ratley agreed. He said no one expects “instant unanimity” on agreeing to the report’s recommendations. “There’s a lot of turf here,” he acknowledged. But he hopes the Judicial Council and then the Legislature will reach some consensus on how to handle the problem. The Legislature has allocated funds for automation, but there’s little to show for it, Ratley said. He said the judicial branch must have a good plan before it again asks for state funds.

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