The Computerworld Honors Program
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Final Copy of Case Study
McKinney, TX, US




Technology Area:
Management of application development/performance and solutions delivery

Collin County District Courts


Felony Video Plea Program

Introductory Overview
The Felony Video Plea Program/Process (FVPP) implemented by the Collin County District Courts was established to achieve multiple goals culminating in a more efficient government process and a cost savings to taxpayers.

The goals for the FVPP were: (1) increase courthouse security for the benefit of court personnel and the public; (2) decrease cost to the Sheriff's Office; (3) increase court efficiencies by decreasing time to dispose of a felony plea; (4) increase the efficiency of the District Attorney's Office and criminal defense lawyers; (5) either decrease indigent criminal defense costs or make the felony plea process more efficient to retain high quality criminal defense lawyers on appointed criminal cases.

The Importance of Technology
How did the technology you used contribute to this project and why was it important?
The importance of the technology to the FVPP cannot be overstated. Without the technology (video conferencing) our organization would have continue in the same, insecure and inefficient manner.

In addition to the FVPP, Collin County has been able to use the video conferencing technological foundation to implement video arraignment/magistration, public health hearings and other court matters.

The technology IS the program.

Has your project helped those it was designed to help?  

Has your project fundamentally changed how tasks are performed?  

What new advantage or opportunity does your project provide to people?
Prior to the implementation of the FVPP, each prisoner who wanted to plead guilty to a felony offense was transported to the courthouse on a secured bus under armed guard. The resources expended in these transports included police officers, the bus, the cost of gasoline and the potential liability from incidents which can occur when the prisoner is outside the confines of the detention facility. Also, once the prisoner is at the courthouse, he must be under supervision by a detention officer while in the building. With between 30-50 prisoners being transported to the courthouse each day, the resources committed to this endeavor were large in number and cost. Finally, to complete the plea process the prisoner is brought before the judge in open court exposing the court personnel, including the judge, as well as the public to the prisoner. It is important to note that a felony offender would be someone charged with murder, aggravated assault, sexual assault, to name a few.

With the implementation of the FVPP, the prisoner remains in the secured facility at the jail. The prisoner is no longer transported to the courthouse, the number of personnel required to supervise the prisoner is reduced and the prisoner is never commingled with court personnel or the public.

Prior to the implementation of the FVPP, the Sheriff's Office personnel (as described above) were heavily involved in the logistics of transporting prisoners and the day-to-day demand on resources was often unpredictable. This created situations where the demand for staffing exceeded the personnel on duty and resulted in having to call in extra personnel which resulted in overtime costs.

With the implementation of the FVPP, the Sheriff's Office can usually meet the staffing demands of prisoner transportation with the scheduled staff on hand. This has reduced considerably overtime costs within the Office.

Prior to the implementation of the FVPP, once prisoners arrived at the courthouse they were dispersed to the eight different courts within the building. At each of those courts the prisoners had to be supervised. The courts in Collin County also hear civil and family law cases each day. In order to dispose of a felony plea it is required that the judge, court reporter, district attorney's office, defense lawyer and prisoner be present at the same time. The district attorney's office as well as the defense attorneys work throughout all the courts. So, a defense lawyer may show up to court to complete a felony plea and the court is hearing a family law case, so he heads to another court who may be hearing a civil case, etc. This is a small example of how logistically difficult it was to get all parties in the same room at the same time to complete the plea process.

Since the implementation of the FVPP, one judge handled all the felony video pleas and does so at one time. Thus, the defense attorneys, district attorney's office and the prisoner appear at the jail through video conferencing, while the judge and the court reporter remain at the jail. All pleas are done within about one and one-half hour from the time they begin. This is quite a bit more efficient than prior to the implementation, making the process much quicker for all involved.

These are examples of how the FVPP provides advantages to a wide range of people.

If possible, include an example of how the project has benefited a specific individual, enterprise or organization. Please include personal quotes from individuals who have directly benefited from your work.
The FVPP has been beneficial to all involved. 

One specific example of the benefits to our county government occurred recently as a result of a specific case filed in Collin County. A prisoner had filed a Petition for Divorce. In order to get a divorce you must be present in court. Obviously, the prisoner could not appear in court and the court dismissed his case. He appealed the dismissal arguing it was an impossibility for him to appear in court. The court of appeals agreed and instructed Collin County to make accommodations for this prisoner to appear in our court.

Prior to the video technology we now have, we would have had to send to police officers to the penitentiary he was located (no matter how far it was) and bring him to court for a hearing which would take no longer than two minutes. Instead, we utilized the video conferencing system at our courthouse and arranged for the prisoner to appear at the penitentiary where he was located. The hearing took place, the divorce was granted and Collin County saved a lot of time and money on a very simple procedural matter.

Collin County has had the issue of having to appear in court come up when dealing with member of the military. We have the technology and processes in place for anyone around the world to appear in our court via our video conferencing system. It is our understanding there is a soldier in Iraq who will appear in one of our Collin County courts to finalize his divorce.

There are also benefits we cannot measure and will never know. Have we saved a person from being hurt by a prisoner because the prisoner was not transported to the courthouse? Have we prevented a communicable disease from being spread within our courthouse because we hold public health hearings via video conference? We hope we have at least minimized the opportunities for security problems because of the implementation of the FVPP. 

Is it the first, the only, the best or the most effective application of its kind?   Most effective

What are the exceptional aspects of your project?
We believe many jurisdictions use video conferencing to process arraignments and to magistrate people in custody. An arraignment is the initial appearance a defendant makes after being arrested. The defendant is read his rights and is asked if he can afford an attorney. If not, the Court appoints an attorney at that time. This is a very quick hearing and involves anyone who has been arrested in a 24 hour period. Also, they must take place everyday of the year including holidays and weekends. Thus, video arraignments were utilized because of the benefits discussed above.

Collin County has taken the use of video conferencing to the next level by including a broader range of cases which can be disposed of using this technology. Establishing the FVPP, has been an exceptional governmental program affecting private citizens individually, business owners such as attorneys and the court system. 

What truly makes this Program exceptional is the cooperation by many different offices and departments within a county government to see to it the process was more efficient and safe. The benefits to each department or office is really miniscule. In fact, some officials receive no direct benefit as a result of the program. However, it is recognized internally, and now externally, the benefit the program has as a whole.

The overall security improvements, financial savings and efficiencies are truly exceptional.

What were the most important obstacles that had to be overcome in order for your work to be successful? Technical problems? Resources? Expertise? Organizational problems?
While the exceptional aspects of the FVPP were the cooperation of many elected officials and departments, getting this cooperation was also one of the most difficult aspects of the FVPP. Each judge, Sheriff and District Attorney's Office has the absolute right to conduct the affairs of their office in the manner they want. If three judges wanted to have the prisoners brought over to the courthouse each day to handle the felony pleas and the remaining judges wanted to perform their pleas by video conference then that would just be the way we would have to do it. The same goes with the Sheriff's Office and the District Attorney's Office.

Thus, in order to succeed at this Program, we had to have the "buy in" from every elected official and County department. Needless to say, the personalities involved as well as their respective position on the use of new technology varied greatly. Some involved really did not fully utilize simple technologies like email. But getting them on board was critical as just one opponent would have derailed the Project.

We started to overcome this difficulty by educating each of the decision makers involved. Some required education on the technology itself, other on the budgetary impact the program would have and others about the overall benefit to the taxpayer. When dealing with elected officials (politicians) we also had to make sure their respective constituencies were consulted and their needs addressed. We included the elected officials, their constituencies and the decision makers in our sphere of persuasion. Once we received the appropriate "buy in", which was by no means easy, we had to take all the information and feedback we learned in those discussions and design a administrative system around the needs and desires of the various affected parties.

In government there is a lot of paperwork, signatures and filings that must be maintained, especially within the criminal justice system. In fact, there are many constitutional requirements that have to be met when dealing with items like felony pleas. The other difficulty we had was to ensure the flow of paperwork was accomplished in a fashion that was easy, straight-forward and constitutional. We accomplished this task, again, with cooperation and input for all those which would be affected by the FVPP.

Once all this was accomplished we had to test the technology and the administrative process and make sure it was successful. Those who opposed the concept would attempt to find any reason to shut the program down and declare victory. Thus, preliminary planning was crucial to the success of the FVPP.

We also had to justify the funding for the project which involved an entirely different group of decision makers, the Commissioners Court (akin to a City's City Council). Being in front of a technological advancement did not provide solid evidence as to the success or positive financial impact the proposed FVPP would ultimately provide. Thus, another educational initiative had to be undertaken.

We were successful with our initial launch of the FVPP. While we have had to tweak the system every now and again, we have received no complaints about the system from any official, department or member of the public.

Often the most innovative projects encounter the greatest resistance when they are originally proposed. If you had to fight for approval or funding, please provide a summary of the objections you faced and how you overcame them.
The premise of the question is correct - the most innovative projects do encounter the greatest resistance. We encountered the same resistance here.

No one wants to step out and be a leader and fail. Innovative projects like the FVPP makes sense, but there is no empirical data to back up the promises of efficiency or cost savings. The Project we proposed made sense, but we were merely guessing as to the actual hard benefits of implementing the project. Those who needed to be convinced had to look outside of the box and take a risk.

Most notable was our quest for funding. As mentioned above, the end users of the Program were not the ones who would approve its funding. In fact, the group responsible for the funding often has a very limited understanding of the courts or the way they operate. They are the body who would have to "face the music" with the taxpayer if the Program failed.

We overcame this obstacle by getting the approval of the budget director who would ultimately make the recommendation to the Commissioners Court for funding approval. Being a numbers guy, the budget director wanted hard facts as to cost versus benefit. As already mentioned, being the first in the innovation makes it impossible to financially justify a program's benefit. 

With the budget director we went through the flowchart of how the process was currently done and the cost associated with each step. We took the FVPP flowchart and began to show how with each administrative efficiency  there has to be a corresponding financial benefit.

With a little hard work, we overcame the various obstacles.

Has your project achieved or exceeded its goals?  

Is it fully operational?   Yes

How do you see your project's innovation benefiting other applications, organizations, or global communities?
The Project's success will effect the way our organization does business as well as lay the foundation for other government entities to build on our success. With the technological infrastructure already in place, we have been able to utilize it in other aspects of the court system. We currently use the system to hold extradition hearings, public health hearing, open pleas to the court and justice of the peace hearings and trials. Now that we have been successful and have received praise for the innovation, others are much more willing to jump on board and find ways to improve their systems.

Our ability to affect the global community might be a stretch but we have certainly affected the governments around the State of Texas. We have hosted technology conferences at our courthouse to showcase what we have accomplished and the benefits we are seeing in our County. We have had over 40 judges from around the State come to Collin County to view our equipment and our processes. Many of us have been asked to speak at government conferences throughout the State about this technology and our successes. There is not a week that goes by we do not get a phone call or a video conference call from some governmental official interested in what we have accomplished. 

Finally, we have realized there need to be legislative changes here in Texas in order to expand the use of video conferencing within the state and between local and state governments. We have drafted these legislative changes and have worked diligently with our state representatives and senators to get these changes passed. Again, this will benefit Texas local and state governments as a whole.

How quickly has your targeted audience of users embraced your innovation? Or, how rapidly do you predict they will?
Our audience has embraced this innovation in a very short amount of time once it was implemented. We believe the positive feedback we have been able to receive is due in large part of consulting with the audience during the initial stages of the project until "go live". The audience is able to see directly where their input was listened to and incorporated into the FVPP. Our goal was to involve the people who would be part of the FVPP and, as a result, it is "our Project" rather than "the Project". 

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