The Dyer County Circuit Court Clerk's office is testing a computer program that eventually may be used by every court clerk's office in Tennessee.
The new system of hardware and software is titled "Tennessee Court Information System," or the acronym "TnCIS." The program is hoped to standardize the types of information collected and reported to the Administ-rative Office of the Courts in Nashville.
As a participant in the pilot program, Dyer County Circuit Court Clerk T.J. Jones said the office received $50,000 to $75,000 worth of computer hardware,
The Administrative Office of the Courts is picking up the tab. In addition, Jones said, the county won't have to pay anyone to maintain the new server, computers and printers for the next couple of years. The equipment is under warranty.
The county received the software for free, but must pay about $6,000 a year for software support. The county was already paying that sum for software support on the computer program formerly used, Jones said.
Dyer County was one three counties selected to test the software package. It was installed this summer, along with the new TnCIS program for General Sessions Court cases.
"Everyone will be on the system within the next three years," Jones said.
This is the second phase of a complete overhaul for the state's court information systems. The first phase covered General Sessions court. The third phase, which provides a coordinated software program for the Chancery Court clerk's office, is being developed.
Jones currently serves as the chairman of the Tennessee Court Clerks Association's computer committee and has helped create the TnCIS program. He said it has been tricky trying to develop a system that is acceptable to court clerks throughout the state. For example, he said it took two days of hard work to decide how the cases would be numbered.
"You'd think it would be very simple," he said. But, each county seems to have a different numbering system, including everything from the date to the court clerk's name. "We literally spent days agonizing over it."
Jones, who was first elected to the clerk's post in 1978, said he's been involved in the computerization of court records since the beginning. Dyer County was one of six counties that participated in a court computerization program in 1980.
Unfortunately, as the court clerks began integrating computers into their offices, they didn't adopt a common software program. Now, that's hampering state efforts to analyze court functions statewide.
In 1999, the General Assembly required the state comptroller to provide annual reports on court caseloads. The reports are supposed to assess the workload in each judicial district and weigh the need for additional judges, district attorneys and public defenders. Without a uniform case reporting system in place, though, the comptroller's office has had difficulty preparing the report.
A 2001 study on the need for standardized caseload data (http://www.comptroller1.state.tn.us/repository/RE/judcase2001.pdf) reported: "Tennessee lacks standard caseload data from general sessions courts, courts of record, and, to a lesser degree, municipal courts with general sessions jurisdiction. Without accurate, standardized data from these courts, the Comptroller cannot update the District Attorney weighted caseload study as required …. Consequently, the General Assembly cannot effectively allocate positions."
The state comptroller's study noted several discrepancies among the courts. For example, one court may count each charge as a separate case while another court counts each defendant as a single case no matter how many charges that defendant may face.
The new TnCIS program is expected to alleviate that problem.
In the meantime, it has created a few headaches for employees in the Jones's office. Adjusting to the new Windows-based program -- and the demand for additional information -- has temporarily slowed progress.
"It's just a lot more steps (to accomplish the same thing) but at the end of the month, we've got all that information there," Jones said. Instead of compiling the required end-of-the-month reports by hand, a clerk now taps a few computer keys and the reports are printed and ready for the Administrative Office of the Courts.
"The month-end reports are just super fast," Jones said.
While the clerk's office will still maintain paper files on each criminal and civil case, it is abandoning the traditional large, leatherbound docket books. Docket books list each case filed in the court and include notations every time documents were added to the file. A note on the cover of the last docket book directs inquiries to the computer files.
Jones estimated that six to 10 docket books are needed each year in General Sessions Court alone. Docket books cost $600-$1,000 each, a cost the county will no longer incur.
To assure the records remain open to the public, Jones has set up a computer terminal. Persons researching court documents may request a short training session on the program.