Unclogging courts by resolving simple cases online

Accessing our courts should be as painless as possible, right?

At first blush, this goal doesn’t seem like it should be too difficult to manage. Once underway, most proceedings to resolve minor cases involving civil infractions or low-level misdemeanors — the majority of the issues our courts process — are surprisingly short and simple. In both formal and informal settings, what amounts to a minute-long conversation with a judge, prosecutor, city attorney, or court clerk is usually all that is needed for the parties to find a mutually agreeable solution.

So it’s hard to believe that most minor cases require months and a great many resources (both public and private) to resolve. This is the reality in courts across the state and the nation, despite our country’s centuries-long dedication to “speedy” process. In a typical Michigan court, it often takes many weeks for someone to get the necessary minute of a prosecutor’s or judge’s time in a courthouse.

Some percentage of this delay is due to the limited number of minutes available in a day, of course. But the bulk of the delay and difficulty derive from the organizing and arranging of these minute-long meetings. It is far more time-consuming and resource-intensive for today’s courts to get citizens, law enforcement and a judge into the same room to resolve an issue than it is for the parties to resolve the issue once there.

Court processes are what manage the flow of people and information in our courthouses. They include scheduling hearings, organizing files and keeping records. It is these processes — most of which haven’t changed in any serious way in many decades — that inevitably lead to long delays. What’s worse is that government budget cuts along with staff and hour reductions have meant that courts are forced to do more and more with less and less.

With many courts nationwide routinely struggling to keep up with their caseloads, the time is ripe for innovation in court processes. Our courts lead the world in having highly trained and dedicated judges, prosecutors and court personnel who can use their expertise and discretion to make difficult decisions. What we need are court processes that complement and augment their decision making, but that do so in a highly efficient manner – a perfect recipe for technology-based solutions.

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Comments

Greg Gamalski, ...
Thu, 05/19/2016 - 3:01pm
I cannot help but think the author assumes folk are just guilty as charged so why clog the courts with issues of guilt or innocence. And I find it shameful that matters of substantial rights and dignity are to be resolved in a matter of minutes (the author offers, incredibly, as if this good: ...that cases are resolved in "what amounts to a minute-long conversation with a judge, prosecutor, city attorney, or court clerk"...weirdly not even mentioning the innocent until proven guilty citizen defendant as a party to the "conversation" he cites!). Does that not bother anyone? And what happened to the idea of an open court? Does that really mean a judge on his computer (or more likely her clerk), the prosecutor multi-tasking on cell phone and a defendant in line at the checkout is "court"? Really? In America? Where is the open court in that context? I'm stunned. This is a proposal like a Star Chamber. Additionally it galls me to think that again, another public institution is supposed to "run like a business," that false god worshiped all too often. A system of justice is Sui Generis, unique to itself. It is certainly Not a Business, as Ferguson, Missouri has amply illustrated. It makes my flesh crawl to think of "justice" being meted out like Facebook posts or Amazon orders. Furthermore, I have been in district court as an attorney enough to know that maybe too many people already take a plea or deal because it is more convenient though ill considered. The poor and less fortunate will be pressed into being "processed" so cases can be closed. I doubt this will improve our system of Justice one bit. Many an attorney can attest to the fact that defendants in lesser criminal proceedings have been greatly disadvantaged by ill-considered pleas and lack of counsel for first offenses. This will only make matters worse. And that "agreeable solution"? What may that be most often? We all know a how hard pressed any Defendants to take the "deal" offered are by the overwhelming power of the State and compliant judges who see the same prosecutors every day and have a "working relationship" with them, desiring not justice most often but a cleared a docket. Only the naive can think just because the defendant says on the record there was no coercion in the plea that makes it so. The reality is the courts and prosecutors are the absolutely the most coercive environment for a young or poor or less educated (or fully educated) defendant. Lone Person v State? You know how that turns out every time. Go to any district court and see it. And also see the rolled eyes, pained sighs and over weaning "Court-splaining" stated or implied if a defendant decides to slow things down or assert a Constitutional Right, like a right to a trial. If he or she even gets to open court since the local prosecutor makes the deals in the conference room and judges are presented a fiat accompli, right? Good luck with that. With implicit or clear reminder of how much more a trial will "cost" at sentencing and with "court costs". Only a complete dummy won’t notice that hint. Who can stand up to that? With job in jeopardy, classes being missed or child care a problem, and little money to push back? I don’t see Mad Headroom concepts making it less coercive. You know what will happen right? More implied penalties for even daring ask for hearing, slowing down "efficiency". The court house will have kiosks like parking pay stations. Just pay your fine and get outta here "consumer". Like justice is something we use up like toilet paper? Defendants are citizens with dignity as human beings and rights under the law. We citizens not consumers and mere bits of efficiency in the maw of fine collecting legal commerce. Our system of justice is belittled, demeaned and our entire society is worse off if a court system is reduced to "processing". How is Justice's dignity, grandeur, and respect served in the least by self-serve lanes? I cannot fathom how anyone can consider this notion consistent with Justice. Might as well have us sign binding arbitration agreements at birth and close the courts if this is adopted. I almost feel unclean after having read this. I sure don't think Justice is dignified if citizens are "are in court" while waiting in line with their cellphones in grocery stores or restrooms. Who can be serious about such an idea? I suggest instead maybe we fully fund our courts, consider longer hours, late night or on weekend hearings, reform drug laws, review mandatory sentencing, improve mental health care, recognize that minorities are clearly disproportionately adversely impacted by the mechanisms of supposed Justice in America, hire more judges, and fully and fairly fund indigent defense programs. Efficient justice is likely not "inexpensive" but our justice system reflects the fairness, or not, of our society. The Silicone Valley will never invest a Justice App that would make America proud.
Robert
Mon, 05/23/2016 - 11:15am
As usual the liberal position is more money, more money. We have a justice system overloaded with the prosecution of petty crimes. Any effort to implement changes which would expedite the processing of these petty crimes would be welcome. I get a speeding ticket and ask for a formal hearing. Have to meet with the prosecutor (local township) and agree to plead to "obstructing traffic". Same fine but to points. Then go before judge whoa accepts plea and case is disposed of. Much better to resolve through electronic exchange and avod appearance and wasting courts time. Recent changes allow a landlord to serve notice to quit electronically. We need to be able to file summons and complaint with court electronically. Actual service still by process server. Request for default can be had through email withe the court. Only when tenant request a hearing need the court spend real time on the case. The state courts should be run like the federal. All filings electronic. Sides urged to settle and agree on order to be signed by judge. Criminal should be urged to accept responsibility for their actions and plead guilty in exchange for little or no jail time for mi nor offenses. Outrageous fines and costs should not be imposed on defendants that have no real means to pay.. . City violates OMA. AG refuses to prosecute so citizens have to file a suit against city. There mere threat of an AG action should cause city to admit guilt and city attorney should compel council to comply. Why should private citizen have to sue city to get compliance with existing state statutes? . .
John Q. Public
Mon, 05/23/2016 - 8:40pm
I'll bet we could really clear up the docket by not electing legislators (particularly those whose paychecks were formerly earned in criminal prosecution) who think the way to the legislative hall of fame is by making every human peccadillo a felony.
Wed, 05/25/2016 - 2:38pm
The problem with the system is that it WILL be used as an automated kangaroo court to increase the net revenue realized by traffic courts by lowering the costs of court challenges, at the expense of reducing the defendant's rights of due process. Attorney Gamalski's objections are "right on the money", because money is a prime mover in this system. Justice is NOT the prime mover. Most minor traffic citations are already viewed improperly by the courts as "guilty until proven innocent" and this automated system WILL be used to make that presumption even worse. I have talked and corresponded at length with J. J. Prescott. The probable negatives in the way this automated kangaroo court system will be used in traffic courts do not seem to sway him, and the solutions he offers to avoid the abuses of traffic laws and enforcement for profits are not practical. I agree the system can have some merits in some types of cases, but using it for minor traffic citations WILL result in even more egregious abuses by traffic courts to enforce for profits, not for justice or safety. James C. Walker, National Motorists Association, Ann Arbor