Columbia Municipal Court upgrades to digital filing system

Friday, September 21, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — In the age of rapid-fire technological innovation, people and their data have become more interconnected than ever before. Shara Meyer, Columbia Municipal Court administrator, knows that all too well.

When Meyer joined the Municipal Court in 1985, "automation" meant "typewriter." Manual entry and filing of records, receipts and dockets preceded today's PDF files and document scanners.

Recently, the Municipal Court has embraced new technology to keep up with high monthly caseloads and a desire for more efficient filing and lower printing costs. Similar upgrades have taken place in other Missouri courts.

In the Columbia Municipal Court, there are 3,000 to 4,000 "active" cases each month, including people who owe money for fines or court fees, who need to complete a program for the court such as community service, or who have a pending court appearance or active warrant. At the end of last year, there were 5,044 active cases. There were 3,438 active cases from January through September, Meyer said.

"As the population grows, the caseload grows with it," Meyer said.

During the renovation of the Howard Building in 2006, the court installed New Dawn Technologies' JustWare, which allows for more efficient filing. JustWare allows documents to be scanned and electronically added to a customer's "electronic file cabinet." The court still retains paper copies for now, but it's possible it could convert to an all-digital file database in the future. The software was installed for $54,455; an upgrade last year cost $10,110, Meyer said.

The Columbia Municipal Court is not alone in its focus on technological improvements.

The 11th Judicial Circuit Court in St. Charles County is a pilot court for the Missouri eFile system, which means all files submitted to the court are electronic, including those sent by the prosecuting attorney, Court Clerk Gaylene Lauer said. 

Lauer said the program has been progressing well. Court employees can view files on a computer screen instead of looking for paper files, and printing costs have dropped.

"I'm sure it's saved on paper," Lauer said.

Still, opinions on these technology improvements are mixed. "I like a file in my hand," Lauer said. "It's easier to review than on a computer screen."

In Columbia, the Municipal Court also is communicating through a hallmark of the information age: social media.

Thanks to a Facebook page launched three weeks ago, people can view new and revised ordinances, ask procedural (but not legal) questions and see active warrants through a link to the Columbia Municipal Court website. Beginning last Friday, employees began posting two weeks worth of court dockets, Meyer said.

The Columbia Municipal Court is a division of the 13th Judicial Circuit, which includes courts in Boone and Callaway counties. Meyer explained that most people contact Missouri courts at the municipal level. Online postings, she said, can clear up any confusion by outlining ordinance changes or eliminating the need to place a long-distance phone call.

Meyer said the court also is exploring whether to integrate a radio frequency tagging system with the JustWare system. That would allow a unique bar code to be assigned to each tag, which in turn would make for more efficient document retrieval, filing and editing. Older paper files would receive a tag if they were retrieved manually, allowing the documents to be tied to existing "electronic file cabinets" and viewed on a computer. Bids are being accepted for this technology, Meyer said, and the technology could be in place within three to four months.

Wireless electronic signature pads also are planned to allow instant verification and capture of a person's signature. The court plans to buy three pads for $1,200 each.

Meyer added that previous printing costs averaged 6 cents to 24 cents per page, based on the two-ply or three-ply forms traditionally used by the court. Costs for printing forms for the court dropped from $1,084 in 2010 to $715 last year.

"By using plain paper and printing a copy for the defendant and possibly a hard copy for the case file, the costs will be reduced to 2 cents per page,"Meyer said.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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