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The Third Branch

Director's column: Innovations bring recognition for courts

By A. John Voelker, Director of State Courts

A. John Voelker
A. John Voelker

During the last few months, I have been traveling the state, making presentations to various groups about the Wisconsin court system's budget situation.

After giving my presentation recently to the District 9 judges in Rhinelander, one of the judges commented that when he was looking at the agenda prior to the meeting he thought he could count on me to be positive and uplifting.

Instead, my message came across about as gloomy as the spring weather at the time. As I drove to my next stop in Chippewa Falls, I reflected on the judge's comment. While I know the budget message must be delivered, I think it's important not to lose sight of the positive work and examples of innovation and leadership in the court system.

Peter Drucker, a writer, professor, and management consultant, defined systematic innovation as the purposeful and organized search for changes, and the systematic analysis of the opportunities such changes might offer.

During the past couple of years, I have seen the positive results of this approach to managing the court system, and there's nothing gloomy about it. The Wisconsin court system has no shortage of accomplishments in this area.

Evidence-based practices
One area in which our innovation is being recognized is evidence-based practices.

Building on the findings of the National Center for State Courts report "Effective Justice Strategies in Wisconsin" and the Treatment Alternatives and Diversion (TAD) evaluation report, the Director of State Courts Office received a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Justice to hire a Statewide Problem-Solving Courts Coordinator.  The coordinator is a resource to local program-solving courts and works to advance statewide initiatives such as the TAD Program. 

The Director of State Courts Office also received a three-year $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice - Bureau of Justice Assistance to develop and implement performance measures for Wisconsin's adult drug and hybrid courts.  This project, combined with the development of the Wisconsin Association of Treatment Court Professionals treatment court standards, will put Wisconsin in the forefront of the treatment court community.

Last year, the Effective Justice Strategies (EJS) Subcommittee of the Planning and Policy Advisory Committee, with the assistance of the Center for Effective Public Policy and a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Justice, developed a Wisconsin-specific, evidence-based sentencing training for judges and criminal justice system partners.  The "Effective Sentencing Practices: From Theory to Reality" training was provided for each of the 10 judicial districts.  Some grant funding remains for the Director of State Courts Office to provide follow-up technical assistance to counties to ensure implementation of evidence-based practices at the local level. 

The National Criminal Justice Association identified Wisconsin's TAD Program as a promising practice in criminal justice programming. TAD is an example of how state agencies can integrate evidence-based practices and assist counties in developing treatment alternatives and diversions to jail and prison by targeting non-violent offenders suffering from alcohol and drug addictions.  As a result of recent increases in state appropriations from the Wisconsin Legislature, the annual TAD appropriation has increased from $1 million to $2.5 million and now to $4 million. The TAD program is a collaborative effort of the Wisconsin Department of Justice, Wisconsin Department of Corrections, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and the Director of State Courts Office. 

Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP)
CCAP, which provides the information and technology backbone for our court system, is being recognized for implementing new technologies to gain efficiencies, improve access to information and data sharing between the circuit courts and justice partner agencies.  The court system's Chief Information Technology Officer Jean Bousquet, is serving on the U.S. Department of Justice - Bureau of Justice Assistance's Criminal Justice Technology Forecasting Group.  This group, which brings together people across disciplines, explores emerging technology issues that will impact the criminal justice field. 

Bousquet also was recently appointed to the Judicial Tools Working Group of the National Center for State Courts' Technology Committee. This group is studying the availability and use of electronic judicial tools throughout the nation's courts.  The group will help develop a whitepaper that identifies key issues and considerations in implementing tools for judges to help access and manage electronic case records on the bench, in chambers and remotely.  Bousquet has been invited to present on the topic of Building and Using Electronic Dashboards to Reduce Case Delay for a joint National Association of Court Management/National Conference of Metropolitan Courts conference this summer.  

Integrated Payroll and Financial Systems
The court system is serving as a resource for state government agencies that are just now beginning to work toward implementing the integrated payroll and financial systems that the Director of State Courts Office brought online in September of 2011.

These programs, formally known as the Payroll and Human Resources System (PHRS) and the Court Financial System (CFS) were completed on time and under budget by the Office of Management Services, as approved by the Supreme Court less than a year before.

As a result, management services staff are now being asked to make presentations to the state Department of Administration (DOA) and others throughout state government, including the State of Wisconsin Investment Board, the Department of Employee Trust Funds and the Legislature.

We took the initiative to implement a new system because we recognized the ailing nature of the state administration's IT and payroll system, which the courts also relied on at the time. Following the successful implementation of PHRS and CFS by the court system, DOA decided to revive its STAR (State Transforming Agency Resources) project, which had been previously launched and then stagnated for six years.

Our initiative helped the court system avoid a major problem that much of the rest of state government is just starting to grapple with. A recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article reported that state officials are again proceeding with the STAR project at an estimated cost of $138.7 million and won't complete it until 2017.

Interpreter services
Wisconsin recently tied for fourth in a ranking of all states in providing support for people with limited English proficiency, according to findings of the National Center for Access to Justice. The center compiles the Justice Index (see article, page 5) to provide a picture of which states are following practices and providing resources necessary to help ensure language access to the legal system.

The Justice Index considers a variety of factors, such as the use of "certified interpreters" and availability of court forms translated into languages other than English. Researchers also reviewed laws in each state and judiciary websites dedicated to access to the justice system for individuals with limited English proficiency. The data was gathered beginning in the fall of 2012 and continuing into the spring of 2013.

The Director of State Courts Office also recently received a State Justice Institute (SJI) grant from the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to assess interpreting needs and to evaluate video and audio technology capabilities in circuit courts. The assessment and evaluation may lead to implementation of remote interpreting pilots in selected counties.

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