Stow -- During last fall's campaign for the clerk of courts post at the Stow Municipal Court, all three candidates stressed the need for the court to "go paperless."
Since taking office this past December, Clerk of Courts Kevin Coughlin has made that a top priority and is within reach of accomplishing that goal.
During a recent interview and tour of the courthouse at 4400 Courthouse Drive, off Steels Corners Road in Stow, Coughlin announced he plans to have a new case management system chosen by June and hopes to have it implemented early next year.
"The technology we have in the building here is circa 1995," said Coughlin.
He added when he came aboard, he learned the system hadn't been updated since 2006, missing out on approximately 90 software updates.
The new system could cost between $250,000 and $550,000 for the licenses, but Coughlin stressed that no tax dollars or funds from the city of Stow, the court's host city, are being used.
The money will come from dedicated funds for technology; last year the court increased the "users fee" per case to $13, with $10 going to the clerk's office and $3 to the judges' fund for technology.
The annual maintenance cost would be around $25,000 to $30,000; the present system is costing $30,000 each year, he said.
"We will be as paperless as we choose to be," he said, adding judges are in favor of making this change, which would aid in issues such as privacy and security.
Right now, all casework is on paper, with multiple sheets for every case contained in plastic sleeves. That requires anyone handling any aspect of the case, including judges, to sift through the many sheets to find information such as charges, previous convictions and fines assessed, while the defendant waits.
He said that resulted in the case files being "constantly manipulated by hand all through the process," and that files could be misplaced, but added they were "always found."
In addition, Coughlin noted, clerks then must often decipher handwriting and notes on judges' orders before offenders can pay fines or get information on future actions, often requiring an hour or two of waiting.
"That's a really unacceptable situation," he said.
Best case, "someone gets charged too much or too little," and worst case, "someone gets arrested" because a warrant hasn't been lifted, he said.
With a new case management system in place, judges would have a computer screen before them, allowing quick access to case information. Judges would then type in any disposition, such as fines or warrants, directly into the case file, which could then be accessed immediately by the clerk's office for action, such as the payment of fines.
Presently, Coughlin said, storage of records has consisted of the plastic sleeves being put in boxes and stored on shelves in the secured records room.
Under Ohio law, minor misdemeanors must be saved for five years after they are closed. More serious offenses require storage for 50 years after the cases have closed. There are also documents that are required to be permanently saved.
The drawbacks of the paper system became more evident in January, when a pipe burst during the freezing weather and sent water flowing over the security station, into the clerk's office and down through the basement records room. The flooding damaged thousands of court records.
At that time, Coughlin said the flooding emphasized the need to change the case management system, calling it "like a message from God that I was right."
The first step Coughlin took in his pursuit of improving the court's technology was to hire Mark Hatfield as a full-time deputy clerk for information services. Hatfield was formerly the IT director for city of Stow.
Coughlin said this is the first in-house position for the court's technology, as outside vendors were used previously. Having someone in house allows immediate solutions and communication.
Coughlin is also working with police departments in the 16 Summit County communities covered by the municipal court to use an electronic ticket program the court is now able to utilize, eliminating paper tickets. Presently only Twinsburg Police Department is using the program.
Coughlin says his first months have been "an interesting experience" and he plans to continue making improvements.
"Information is the backbone of this courthouse," Coughlin said.