Chief justice: technology upgrades needed to make courts open
By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector
Sunday, May 5, 2019
North Carolina’s judicial system handles about three million cases annually. The cases involve criminal, civil and business matters and are heard across a variety of court settings.
Overseeing this system is the Cheri Beasley, Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Beasley, who was appointed chief justice in early March, wants to advance the public’s access to the state’s courts by implementing a statewide eCourts program, a cloud-based system which provides statewide electronic filing, integrated case management and calendaring and allows people to handle certain activities without traveling to a courthouse.
Beasley discussed the eCourts system when she traveled to Greenville on Monday, to a talk with high school and Pitt Community College students ahead of the North Carolina Supreme Court’s special session on May 14 at the Pitt County Courthouse. The event is part of a two-year observance of the court’s bicentennial.
Beasley was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 2012. She was elected associate judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 2008. She was the first African-American woman to win a statewide election without having been first appointed to the position.
Along with streamlining work internally, Beasley said eCourts could help smaller counties provide services such as seeking domestic violence protection orders when magistrates are off duty. The state received a federal grant three years ago to launch an eCourts domestic violence program in 13 counties.
Implementing a statewide system would require $40 million, Beasley said.
“We are asking the legislature to fund eCourt, which would allow greater access to justice across the state,” Beasley said.
Implementing an eCourt system here would be easier than in some states because the North Carolina has a unified court system. However, the technology is these courts are widely different.
“We don’t have a way for the systems to communicate,” Beasley said. “We don’t have ways for people to use the system in a way which will allow us to be more efficient and customer-service ready.”
The state Administrative Office of the Courts, which falls under the chief justice’s purview, is seeking $40 million from the General Assembly in the 2019-21 biennium budget. Ideally, there would be a $20 million appropriation in the approaching 2019-20 state budget and the other half would be funded in fiscal year 2020-21.
The funding request is part of the budget discussions currently underway in the General Assembly.
The court system also needs additional funding as it prepares to implement the “Raise the Age” policy adopted last year by the General Assembly and set to go in effect on Dec. 1.
Under Raise the Age, the age for juvenile jurisdiction for nonviolent offenses was raised to age 18.
“If we are going to have more juveniles going through the juvenile court system, then the system is going to need more resources,” Beasley said. “More staff people, possibly more judges and more programs to make sure people who go through the program have a greater likelihood of success.”
Implementing Raise the Age illustrates one reason why the state needs an integrative computer system for its courts, Beasley said. There are lots of pieces of information that counties enter in different ways or don’t enter at all.
“That’s the beauty of eCourts,” Beasley said. “We would all be entering the same kind of information in the same kind of way.”
The electronic system also will provide a more efficiently method to compile data and determine better ways for using the courts system’s resources.
Earlier this year Pitt County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Marvin Blount III has talked with local leaders about the need to implement a pre-trial release program that will allow judges to release select criminal defendants from jail without a bond if they agree to electronic monitoring and other conditions. About 40 North Carolina counties have the program.
The are programs are typically county funded, although some county courts, working through sheriff’s departments, have received grant funding to operate a program, Beasley said.
“We’re talking about a national issue,” she said. “A lot of states are looking at pretrial release programs and trying to figure out a way to relieve jails and prisons safely.”
Pretrial release must be selectively applied to ensure community safety, Beasley said. However, there are numerous people incarcerated for nonviolent offenses who could be working and productive.
Although with bail and pretrial release programs, issues involving the payment of fines and courts related to case adjudication are being discussed nationwide, Beasley said.
“If you can afford the fines and fees it can work but so many people in North Carolina are struggling to pay the fines and fees,” she said. A person who does pay the fines and fees may be jailed and come out owing more.
“I don’t know if most people know, but it costs to go to jail,” Beasley said. “There is a daily fee one must pay to go to jail so the person comes out owing more than they did when they went to jail.
Judges are limited in their ability to modify fines and fees.
“We are figuring out ways with other stakeholders across the branch to address these issues,” she said.
Contact Ginger Livingston at email@example.com or 252-329-9570.