Wise County Circuit Court going paperless
WISE, Va., Jan 23, 2012 (Bristol Herald Courier - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The paperless office has arrived in Southwest Virginia.
In a change that began this year, the Wise County Circuit Court no longer generates paper files for criminal cases, said Jack Kennedy, the clerk of court.
"Any paper that comes in, we will scan it and place it in a daily file, but there will not be individual files created because it will be in a digital format," he explained.
Any documents that arrive in paper format, he said, are scanned and will be kept for two years in daily files before they are destroyed.
"Wise County is the only county in the commonwealth of Virginia this far along in a digital regime," Kennedy said. "We've endeavored methodically over these many years in developing these projects, and they're all culminating in a completely digital circuit court."
Over more than a decade-and-a-half that he's been in office, Kennedy said the clerk's office has been putting its technology-based records system together piece by piece.
There is, for example, a 100-layer geographic information system map of the county that allows a user to look up a piece of real estate and find not only deed and tax information but physical aspects of the site, such as utility availability, Internet signal strength and traffic counts on nearby roads.
He said many elements of the GIS project have been done as student projects, with the help of students from UVa-Wise as well as from colleges outside the region.
The clerk's office has developed the ability for hearings to be held by video, whether participants are at a local prison or in Richmond.
A major undertaking has been the conversion of existing courthouse records -- dating back to the county's creation in 1856 -- from paper to digital format.
"When you have 156 years of records, it's not easy to convert all the paper and index it and key the information and find the resources," Kennedy said. "The resources have been cobbled together from multiple places."
He said the office is always writing grants -- and has received money from federal, state and local sources for parts of the project. For the last four years, he said, local leaders invested in the project as a capital expenditure. Much of the work of digitizing documents has been done by a pair of trained preservationists.
Kennedy said he was unsure what the entire project has cost.
"Our land records are digital back to 1945 through today and our criminal and civil files are complete from 1856 to today -- with a minor exception of about a year in the 1920s because the paper was tri-folded, and we've got to flatten them and scan them. I hope that we'll be done with that by the end of the year," he said. "What we're starting on next is all of the wills and estate files, taking them back to 1856 ... and I anticipate that will probably take until July 1 of 2012."
After that, he said, just a few miscellaneous paper records will remain unconverted and, depending on funding, he anticipates having all of those digitized by mid-2013.
The records are available for public access at the courthouse and accessible remotely to government agencies and attorneys by subscription. The digital files are backed up off-premises every few minutes.
That backup, Kennedy said, serves as a kind of insurance against a catastrophe, such as a fire or tornado that could otherwise demolish the courthouse and a century-and-a-half of records.
"If the Wise County courthouse suffered a catastrophic destruction, the Wise County Circuit Court could function again at a different location within hours," he said.
It's also an alternative, he said, to physically constructing records storage space. In the last few years he's eliminated the need for some 200 filing cabinets, reclaiming space rather than filling it.
That's a visual change that Deputy Clerk Suzanne Ramsey said she has seen firsthand in the seven years since she started working at the courthouse.
"When I started here as a college student, there were at least six to eight filing cabinets in this room, and we would file," she said of her spacious office, which features a desk with a computer and plenty of space for people who might come in seeking assistance with records.
In a nearby office, Georgie Koop -- a data image analyst and one of two employees whose job is to digitize old documents -- has been part of the transformation in her two years of working there.
"It was completely full, and there's what, two cabinets down there now?" Koop said of a records room that's been repurposed into several offices. "It's a lot of progress."
In a room that once was wall-to-wall records, the county now has a GIS lab, where area college students help to update county maps as they learn the technology. On the other side of the stairs is a meeting room with the capability to teleconference anywhere in the world.
The space also houses Sky-Tech Aerospace Rocketry, a rocket-building and competition program that engages high school students in the sciences and math -- and is another source of occasional help for courthouse records projects.
Only one room -- the vault -- remains full of records. Kennedy said that's the only room that will continue to be used for paper records storage, primarily to keep election records and the daily files that await shredding after being digitized.
Historic deed books, though digitized, are also being kept and continue to line the walls in some of the offices.
Now, Ramsey said, filing documents is as simple as the click of a mouse. With most court filings now being done electronically, all she has to do is open a file, glance over it and accept it into the system.
Preparing files for court is even simpler because once a document is accepted into the system, it is available to everyone in the courtroom.
"Today was misdemeanor appeal day," Ramsey said, "and we didn't take any files up to the courtroom."
Kennedy said the software, developed by a Norton-based business, is a system that other localities may seek to duplicate in the future.
"The real benefit to the public is rapid service at a lower cost with fewer human resources in a time of budget austerity," he said.
Under the system, he said, an attorney can access a case at almost any time of day or night from his office to file documents. The clerk can then open a document and approve or disapprove, with any relevant fees paid instantaneously and an e-mail on the filing going to all relevant parties.
Then, Kennedy said, all of the documents are available in the courtroom via iPad. This year, he plans to add digital video and audio to the digital court files.
Altogether, he said, digital files make everyone more productive. There's no more hunting down paper files, he said. And searchable online court files offer new possibilities for analyzing information.
He said it eliminates the need for certain state officials to travel from Richmond because of cases -- and allows the clerk's office to serve everyone faster, freeing up staff time to spend on other things.
"Eventually ... we could probably take staff cuts in 2015 or 2016 and not replace them," he said. "With the budget situation that we're seeing in Richmond and Washington and local government levels, that's going to become more important, but that involves investing in the technology with some measure of faith that you're going to get that in the longer term."
Kennedy said his model is based on passion for technology, good staffing, the cooperation of lawyers and judges and partnership with the Wise County Commonwealth's Attorney's Office, which now files everything electronically.
"We've tried to think of every way that paper is being introduced to the office," he said, "and ways we can change and enhance that work flow to the utilization of modern technology: making if faster, better, cheaper."
Kennedy said in some ways it's actually easier for a small county like Wise to make the switch to a digital court than for a more populous one.
"In larger localities, it's a matter of turning an aircraft carrier, and we are a speedboat," he said. "We're able to take volumes of information and convert it over a decade, and it's a much larger, more expensive endeavor for them."
What happens with records in other Southwest Virginia localities, he said, will ultimately be up to the circuit court clerk in each county.
"Just because of our location and our size does not denote that we can or cannot do something," said Kennedy, who served four years in the Virginia House of Delegates, from 1988 to 1992, before he became the clerk of court. "It's really a matter of believing you can do it as opposed to believing you can't do it."
While it takes time and money to create a digital system for county records, Kennedy likened the investment to the purchase of a personal computer -- and the positive impact it has on individual productivity.
From this point he says the technology will continue to evolve -- and he hopes other Virginia localities will use similar software but also offer ideas in the spirit of continuous improvement.
"It's not a matter of the technology," Kennedy said. "It's a matter of funding and the desire to implement it."
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