Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published by “Swathi Ramprasad”

At the courthouse, replacing ‘shucks’ with modern record-keeping

The record-keeping system at the Durham courthouse is a glimpse back in time.

A large room in the Durham clerk’s office has drawers full of tightly rolled ribbons of film. An assistant clerk feeds a strip of “microfilm” into an old-fashioned grey machine and turns a knob. The black and white screen shows court records from as recently as twelve years ago.

Court records at the Durham courthouse are still kept on microfilm. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

A few steps over, there are stacks of large judgment books, bound in canvas and leather. Inside the books, in carefully crafted cursive, live the names of defendants and plaintiffs alongside their verdicts from cases until 2007. 

The clerk’s office is like a museum of record-keeping from the 1900s, with systems and documents that are reminiscent of generations past. Durham is typical of the rest of the state. It is still reliant on ancient computers and cardboard boxes stuffed with files.

Records from as recent as 2007 were still logged in leather-bound books – in cursive handwriting. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

But officials say help is on the way. A new initiative will bring a new electronic records system to Durham and other North Carolina courts over the next five years.

Mending a “Patchwork Quilt”

Archie Smith, the clerk for Durham Superior Court, says the state’s courthouses have been relying on a “patchwork quilt” of technology that “began to show its age.” 

In 2015, the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court studied the needs of courts throughout the state. One of the top priorities was technology.

As a result, the Administrative Office of the Courts signed a contract in July with Tyler Technologies, a Texas software company, to move North Carolina to a modernized system using their Odyssey case management tool.  

Christopher Mears, a spokesperson for the state office of the courts, said the specifics are still being ironed out.

“We ultimately are paving the way for a virtual courthouse,” he said in an email.

When it’s finished, Durham and other counties will get modern integrated systems so clerks can manage documents, keep track of finances, and help lawyers file their motions online.

The project is expected to roll to a few pilot counties by March 2021. 

“From Murphy to Manteo, everyone will be on the same system,” Smith said. 

Frozen in Time

Today, clerks are surprisingly dependent on paper and outdated technologies. Consider the situation in Durham’s District Court, which relies on antique-looking monochrome computers and envelopes known as “shucks.”

Shucks. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

The District Court clerk’s office first receives law enforcement agencies’ records, which are often adorned with hasty, illegible scrawl. 

Clerks then stuff these documents in color-coded shucks: grey for infractions, brown for traffic violations, white for criminal cases, and yellow for DWIs. 

An assistant clerk sits in front of a green and black screen, reminiscent of arcade games like “Space Invaders” from the age before color displays. She manually transfers each case’s details the court’s electronic database. 

Then, the shucks are moved to cardboard boxes, which fill a narrow room up to the ceiling. 

The monochrome monitors look like they were made in the 1980s. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

Sometimes, the documents are scanned and put onto CDs. The woman who scans them dips her hands in a pink tub of fingertip moistener, used by archivists who sort through thousands of parchments daily, so she can better grip the paper. 

The difficulty in finding an old case depends on how it was archived. If someone requests a file from the late 1900s, staff must leaf through the aged pages of the leather-bound judgement books or hand-spin the microfilm tapes on a machine that bears a striking resemblance to the first television. 

Court records are like time capsules, since documents remain in the format they were originally stored, Williams said. 

“Helping People at the Lowest Points in their Lives” 

The goal of the new system: make the court more efficient. 

“I expect that we’ll be completely electronic, other than scratch paper that you’d write notes to yourself,” Smith said. After all, North Carolina courts are running out of space to keep paper files. 

Electronic records sound promising. William Sheppard, Chief Deputy of the Dekalb County Clerk of Superior Court in Georgia, oversaw the county’s successful transition to the Odyssey Case Management software in 2016.

Boxes and boxes of shucks | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

He says the system has saved time for the county’s staff and clients. Financial processing that once took two weeks is now complete within a day. 

But paper hasn’t disappeared from the courthouse. 

“We call it paper on-demand,” Sheppard said. It is still available, but they try to avoid print where possible. 

Blair Williams, Wake County’s Superior Court clerk, says he wants the technology to help humanize the court system. 

“I want to eliminate the keystrokes because they keep us from doing what we do best: helping people at the lowest points in their lives,” he said. 

“It Can’t Tell the Story that the Paper Can” 

Williams says it won’t be easy to get court staffers throughout the state to give up their familiar procedures. .

And others are wary about depending on technology. Lynn Vaughan, an assistant clerk of courts in Durham, said, 

“The computer system might be great, but it can’t tell the story that the paper can.” 

Technology often has glitches. Tyler Technologies, the creator of the Odyssey system, has faced reports of causing wrongful arrests, prolonged jail time, and premature releases in Alameda County, Calif., Shelby County, Tenn., and Marion County, Ind

These issues may stem from problems with the Odyssey software, including incompatibility with prior electronic systems or data-entry backlogs that delay cases from getting updated. 

Jennifer Kepler, a spokesperson for Tyler Technologies, defends the software. She said that

budget deficits in Alameda accounted for the county’s premature adoption of Odyssey, against Tyler’s recommendation. In Shelby and Marion, Odyssey was being blamed for issues caused by other court technologies, she said. 

Today, Kepler says the three counties are “satisfied clients,” with Shelby and Alameda counties winning 2019 Tyler Excellence Awards for their innovative use of the software. 

However, possible difficulties with the technology remain on North Carolina’s radar.

“If there’s a failure in the system, the injury to the courthouse process would be colossal in scope,” Smith said. “As cumbersome as the old system was, there was a certain amount of security in that warm fuzzy blanket of paper.” Smith said. 

Despite those reports, Smith and Williams agree that the computerized system will be an important step forward. 

“North Carolina is blazing a path for the courts of the nation.” Smith said. 

But chucking the shucks? That might take a generation on its own.

In photo at top, shucks for District Court cases are stored in cardboard boxes. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad

Video surveillance: The hidden eye of the justice system

Video cameras captured two scenes from the convenience store on Alston Avenue in East Durham on the night of Jan. 9, 2018. 

In one, a little boy walks inside, his eyes on the prize. He flashes a mischievous smile, eager to get his hands on a Hostess “Donette” packet stacked neatly a few steps away. 

In the other scene, from outside the store, Noe Ruiz and Jerone Powell get into a fight. Powell exits with a stab wound, leaving Ruiz with a court date.

The two scenes captured by the store’s video system show how cameras have become unblinking spectators. They can capture, with incredible levels of detail, the banal routine of a convenience store just as they can reveal the crimes that occasionally occur there.

Daniel Meier, a prominent defense lawyer in Durham who represented Ruiz, says the convenience store footage is a reminder that video cameras are everywhere. Businesses, stores, and even renters and homeowner are recording everything.

“Cameras are dirt cheap now. It takes almost nothing to do it. People, acting out of a sense of paranoia, feel secure when a camera is watching.”

The implications of such surveillance are fuzzy, Meier said. Our private lives have been transformed into something more public.

But much of the footage is the seemingly dull routine of everyday life.

In the convenience store, the kid sees the rack with the doughnuts. Jackpot. He picks a 3-pack of the powdered pastry off the shelf and dashes down the aisle with his conquest. He runs straight into his mom, who snatches the stolen goodies out of his nubby hands. His once-triumphant grin transforms into a surly pout.

Jeb Dennis, a public defender at the Durham County Courthouse, said that the standards of evidence are higher now. Juries expect video evidence. If it’s not available, they want to know why.

“It’s called the CSI effect,” Dennis said. “Jurors, civilians, and people in general want more evidence now than what they expected 30 years ago.” People expect video evidence because they’ve seen it in so many TV shows.

Studies have shown that over 25% of human witnesses have false memories. Video eliminates that problem.

“We use it to our favor,” Meier said. Video footage can be definitive evidence of a criminal’s guilt.

Ruiz’s case at the convenience store is a powerful case study.

The video shows Ruiz and Powell emerge from behind a dumpster in the store’s parking lot, shouting at each other.

The fight turns physical, and the footage shows the faint outlines of a knife in Ruiz’s hand. Ruiz lunges and stabs Powell, who pushes him backwards. Ruiz lands on his behind, cigarette still in mouth.

Powell then walks into the convenience store, his hand placed lightly on the lower section of his potbelly. His face is stoic and unfazed. He grabs a few napkins, clots his wound, and walks out the door.

Meier said this footage was crucial in Ruiz’s case. Not only did it pin him to the scene of the crime, it also reduced his sentence. Powell’s demeanor inside the store proved the harm caused wasn’t so bad.

But video has its drawbacks.

“We’re basically a surveillance society.” Meier said. While privacy laws might protect citizens from being spied on by the government, it doesn’t stop people from recording each other. 

“In public places, there’s no legal expectation of privacy. The laws just haven’t caught up with technology,” he said. 

Video can capture and save even irrelevant information.

“Back in the day, you would see someone and then they’re gone. Now you have a video that can save for life the image of someone picking their nose,” he said.

This constant watchdog feature also can hit the limits of technological capacity.

“Often video just is not accessible because sometimes cases take years. Those gas stations can’t hold videos for years. That (video) is gone,” Dennis said.

But the attorneys say video is here to stay, capturing everyday life, plus the occasional crime.

Back in the store, the kid returns back to the Hostess rack. It’s his second try and he’s smarter this time. He hides the snack cakes in the fold of his shirt as he dodges his mother.

He slides across the store’s center aisle. He sticks the donut in his mouth, victorious.

No one even saw him.

A tale of two cities: Lessons for Durham about ShotSpotter

A gunshot goes off.  

In many neighborhoods, no one calls the police. 

But in more than 100 cities, the sound is picked up by audio sensors, and computers quickly triangulate the location of the sound. 

Meanwhile, in a room in California, audio experts sit behind several large monitors that are filled with red and green maps. They monitor the alerts from the sensors and, if they determine the sound was indeed gunfire, they quickly alert the local police. 

The whole process takes approximately 60 seconds, according to ShotSpotter, the company that sells the technology. That enables officers to respond quickly and – city officials hope – reduce the likelihood of injuries and further shootings.

In June, the Durham City Council voted down a measure to implement ShotSpotter, citing insufficient data about the service and other budgetary priorities. But after a spate of recent shootings, Council Member Mark Anthony Middleton is urging them to reconsider.

“Kids in Durham are being trained to jump in the bathtub when they hear gunfire,” he said. “They’re getting soldiering skills at eight or nine years old.” 

As Durham deliberates, Middleton and others can learn from the experiences of two North Carolina cities with very different experiences with ShotSpotter. In Charlotte, officials decided ShotSpotter wasn’t worth the money. But, in Wilmington, officials like the system so much they want to expand it.

Charlotte: “Closed circuit cameras and license plate readers are actually more effective”

In 2012, Charlotte had high hopes for ShotSpotter.

The city was about to host the Democratic National Convention and wanted to be prepared for potential gun violence.

Patrick Cannon, then the mayor pro tem, told the City Council that ShotSpotter was a smart investment.

“I know we don’t like talking about guns … but having a system for the long-term is something I believe is really important to this community,” he said.  

At the time, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department bought a contract covering two square miles in the center of downtown, only a fraction of the department’s 473-square mile jurisdiction. Cannon said the technology might make the city safer because of its ability to alert police officers in real-time.

But ShotSpotter didn’t live up to its promise. In 2016, the City decided to abandon its $160,000 contract with ShotSpotter. 

Police said ShotSpotter often didn’t result in arrests. Another problem: false alarms, which strained police time and resources.

Crystal Cody, Charlotte’s Public Safety Technology Director, said that ShotSpotter solved a problem that Charlotte didn’t have.

“The premise of the technology is to be alerted to gunfire in the absence of someone calling 911,” she said. “But, in our city, we’ve found that primarily citizens call 911. We are already on route to it, just about as soon as we get the information from ShotSpotter.” 

ShotSpotter wasn’t worth the investment, said Cody. The city canceled the contract.

“We have found that closed circuit cameras and license plate readers are actually more effective,” said Cody.

Wilmington: “You’ve got to start using 21st century technologies to address crime now”

Wilmington has had a much better experience. After using ShotSpotter for nearly nine years, the city recently signed a contract to expand services with the company. 

In Wilmington, ShotSpotter covers a six-mile radius. Officials used data to determine neighborhoods that had high incidents of gun violence, which decided the locations of the sensors. 

Deputy Police Chief Alejandra Sotelo said she’s pleased with the technology because it speeds up the process of dispatching police officers. 

When people call the police, it slows the process. A ShotSpotter alert can often be faster than a 911 call, which needs to go through a dispatcher  Even a one- or two-minute delay can mean life or death for victims of violent crime, Sotelo said. 

It’s so good, Sotelo said, that some people might trust the system a little too much.

 “One of the things we have noticed since we’ve implemented this technology is that people often don’t call 911, which is concerning. They think ShotSpotter will just pick it up,” she said.

Wilmington has seen a reduction in crime in the last few years. “Our overall violent crime numbers have gone down, and this year we’re proud of a record low,” said Sotelo. She thinks this might be correlated with the implementation of ShotSpotter. 

Sotelo said ShotSpotter doesn’t need to generate arrests in order to be effective. 

“We use it as a tool to get to the scene and gather evidence quicker. You still have to go through the investigative process” to make arrests, Sotelo said.

The Wilmington Police Department liked ShotSpotter so much the city has expanded its use. As of this month, it was the first in the nation to complete training for the ShotSpotter Missions tool, a data analytics program that forecasts crime and preemptively dispatches police.

“You’ve got to start using 21st century technologies to address crime now,“ she said.

Sotelo said she would like to see a system of cameras integrated with ShotSpotter. Video footage would help identify victims and suspects, something the current tool does not do. 

As for Durham, Sotelo recommends the city do its research. “I could tell you how great it is, and I do think it’s a great, but make sure you go to other cities. Come to Wilmington, see how it works and what officers think about it.”

Above, a screenshot of a ShotSpotter display. Photo from ShotSpotter

Automated reminders aim to reduce no-shows for court

In 2017, the Durham Criminal Justice Resource Center spearheaded an automated notification system that sends people reminders about their court dates via text, email, or phone. Two years later, the initiative has enrolled more than 8,200 people.

The project was launched in an effort to reduce the number of people who are charged with failing to appear in court in Durham County.

At the CJRC, James Stuit, gang reduction manager, and Beth Steenberg, quality assurance and data integrity manager, have made it a priority to investigate this issue. The reasons why people don’t show up to court vary based on the individual, they said. Often, people forget their court dates, or they do not have transportation to get to court. 

“I think the two biggest reasons were that either they forgot, or they were hoping the system forgot,” Steenberg said based on prior conversations with justice-involved individuals. The automated notification system tries to address both of those issues. By receiving direct contact from the justice system, people may be less likely to slip through the cracks.

Signing up is simple. People with charges in Durham County can go to the program’s website and register for the alerts. They can also register through a paper form at their first appearance, jail booking, or pre-trial service. The CJRC seeks to maintain participant privacy and has made it easy for people to sign up anonymously. 

After the participant selects which methods of contact they prefer, the technology takes care of the rest. Before their next court appearance, the participant will receive a phone call, email, or text with the details of their appointment. Two reminders are issued: the first alert is sent three days before the court appearance and the second is sent the day before the person’s court date.

As of 2019, the program has upwards of 8,200 total enrollments. Last year, approximately half of the participants were registered during first appearances, while just under a quarter signed up online.

People who have used the program said that it has helped them stay organized. While it has been useful, participants have also discussed the need for additional information in the messages, such as parking location or courtroom numbers. 

The CJRC has partnered with Duke’s Center for Advanced Hindsight and  Durham’s Innovation Team to implement the project. In 2018, the Center for Advanced Hindsight launched an experiment to incorporate behavioral science into the wording of the notifications. The researchers wanted to see whether a message that discussed the consequences of not showing up and nudged individuals to plan for their court day were more effective. The different message styles were compared across texts, emails, and phone calls.

Joseph Sherlock, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Hindsight, said that the study only noticed an effect among participants who opted to receive texts. There was an approximately 2% decrease in charges for failing to appear in court for people who received the new message style via text when compared with the old message model.

“I think this may in part be due to limited attention,” Sherlock said, explaining that participants may be more willing to pay attention to the content in a text reminder just because it is shorter.

“We are what we would call cognitive misers. We go through life trying to minimize the amount that we have to process,” he said. 

One of the biggest challenges of the program has been collecting data to evaluate its impact. The CJRC has found it tough to determine whether the automated notification system has actually reduced rates of no-shows in Durham County.

Court appearances are still recorded by-hand on stacks of paper that are kept at the courthouse. Without a digital system to view this court data, analyzing it is laborious.

“We were polishing a technology dimension when in other places it didn’t even exist. So, it was like putting the icing on the cake before we even had the cake,” said Sherlock. 

The reminder program has had a steady number of monthly enrollments. The CJRC hopes to expand the program to more participants in Durham and add more features to the technology.

Sherlock thinks that it should be easier for citizens to interact with the government, especially the justice system.

“There’s an argument that we should be making government service use generally as simple as possible, particularly for those who are time or money scarce,” he said. “When we make it difficult for them, it is a huge tax for them because their bandwidth is already stretched.”

A courthouse moment: ‘Because it’s the right thing to do’

Courtroom 4D ran a bit like a zoo.

The electric candy-pop of someone’s phone accented the hum of whispers, laughs, and shuffling that was so regular it almost became white noise. There was an anxious itch in the air, each person in a hurry to leave the wood benches as soon as they possibly could. Meanwhile, Judge Doretta Walker bantered with courtroom latecomers, and no one seemed to mind one another.

A middle-aged man, wearing an oversized tweed coat over a grey pair of basketball shorts, stood before the judge ready to present himself in court.

“Go outside and tuck in your shirt, Mr. Williams,” Judge Walker sighed. “I should not see red underwear.”

Her voice was sharp, with the frustration of a parent and the sass of someone who had seen it all before.

On to the next case. “Shantal Parham,” the judge called out.

Parham, a 31-year-old with straight, black hair and a neat pink cardigan, walked up to the witness box to testify at Durham County District Court. She claimed the defendant, Jessica Smith, assaulted and threatened her.

Parham had filed for a restraining order and lodged a complaint with the magistrate months before the trial. Today, she wanted to find a resolution.

Parham spoke to the court firmly and with resolve. She recounted the day of the incident, April 4, which began with a visit to her apartment’s leasing office. After noticing that her rent was higher than usual, she sat down with the leasing agent, Jacqueline Washington, to sort out the bill.

This conversation caught the attention of Smith, the assistant property manager.

Tensions quickly escalated as Parham and Smith disputed the rent prices. Parham told the court that Smith blew up, shouted profanities at Parham, and began to get aggressive. Parham quickly called the police, who then arrived and filed an incident report.

Parham described walking to her mailbox with her children later that day, when Smith ran up to her.

“I ought to whoop your ass!” Smith said. Parham was taken aback.

Smith also suggested that as the property manager, she had access to all the apartments in the complex. “She said she’d watch my apartment, have someone stand in my apartment to watch me,” Parham recounted. “Mrs. Smith spat in my face.”

A collective gasp rose from the back of the courtroom. “Oh my god, that’s crazy!” The once apathetic crowd listened attentively to Parham’s story.

Smith, Parham claimed from the witness box, attacked her in front of her kids. That touched a nerve. She wanted the court to set things right.

“The state calls Jacqueline Washington.” The prosecutor turned his attention to the next witness.

Washington, the leasing agent, was an older woman with graying hair and a cool-toned jacket. She gave her version of the story, backing up Parham’s allegations. Her voice was crisp and dignified, full of the conviction that her truth meant something here.

“The treatment she received was unfair,” Washington said of Parham. “Mrs. Smith was not following the proper procedure.”

“I didn’t like the way the residents were treated,” Washington said. She had since quit her job at Falls Pointe Apartments. This incident with Smith played a large role in that decision.

“Why are you testifying today?” the defense attorney asked Washington.

“Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Washington’s words rang in the courthouse, which now stood silent.

The state found Smith guilty on two counts of misdemeanor assault. She would have to attend an anger management class and complete community service.

During the recess, Parham and Washington walked into the hallway together. They greeted each other with a warm hug.