Critics say no way to paper over court clerk’s outdated records system
BY BRIAN SLODYSKO Staff Reporter July 3, 2014 11:23PM
Dorothy Brown relies on a "technology fee" for about 11 percent of her office budget, but hasn't managed to modernize her record-keeping systems, critics say. | Sun-Times File Photo
Updated: July 4, 2014 6:16PM
Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown has mocked the technology that was used to manage Cook County court records when she was first elected in 2000.
“The systems were very outdated,” Brown was quoted as saying in a 2005 trade publication. “We were operating with 1980s software and antiquated hardware.”
But 14 years after she first campaigned to modernize the operation, Brown’s office still manages court files with 1980s computer technology; bail amounts are still scribbled on carbon paper.
Meanwhile, Brown’s office has collected over $119 million in fees that state and local law require to be spent on technology improvements.
That $15 “automation” fee, as it is called, has been tacked on to court filings since the late 1980s. In 2014, it funded 11 percent of Brown’s $100 million budget, according to county officials.
“Only Dorothy Brown can tell you why we haven’t made more progress,” said Commissioner John Fritchey, D-Chicago, chairman of the county board’s technology committee. “It would be laughable if it wasn’t so pathetic.”
Real problems arise from the massive paper-based record system her office oversees.
Last year, paperwork snafus led to the release of three inmates who should have been locked up, Sheriff Tom Dart’s office said.
Dart has a 100-deputy unit managing clerk’s office paperwork giving instructions for about 1,500 inmates taken to court each day.
“It’s very difficult in today’s day and age — when you can buy your Starbucks with your iPhone — to imagine that we have these pieces of paper,” Cara Smith, the jail’s executive director, said.
And public defenders say it’s a scramble to get paper criminal histories and police reports for 100 to 300 new people who are added to their caseloads each day.
“This could all be done with a punch of a key,” said Patrick Reardon, the first assistant public defender.
The Illinois Supreme Court still requires courts clerks across the state to keep a paper copy of records. But that doesn’t stop Brown’s office from also making them available online to criminal justice agencies, said Supreme Court Spokesman Joe Tybor, who declined to comment further.
In a written statement, Brown’s office said the automation fees have been spent according to law, and that progress has been made.
About 95 million court documents have been scanned, according to a statement. Basic lawsuit information can be searched online. And a web portal allows attorneys to file paperwork, though the additional fees charged for that service have limited participation.
But Brown — whose office has traditionally employed an army of patronage workers — has said more money is needed for prosecutors, public defenders, judges and the jail to electronically access the same records.
Meanwhile, when a budget request for more funding went unheeded last year, her office announced it could not be able to stop using carbon paper court forms.
And recently she proposed hiking the automation fee to $25, but was shot down by the county board.
In a written response to Brown’s proposal, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle suggested Brown improve her office’s customer service and cut staff.
But Brown calls herself a leader in the modernization effort, while blaming others for impeding progress. And she says the office of Chief Judge Timothy Evans, who did not respond to a request for comment, signs off on all technology-related expenses.
“I am responsible to a lot of different agencies. I don’t move by myself,” Brown said in March, when asked why progress was slow. “I have been pulling everybody along as fast as I can. It’s rules and regulations.”
“If the clerk wants to take the credit for being a pioneer in this, then she needs to take credit for what hasn’t happened since she took office,” Fritchey said.
He suggested protection of political turf and worries that automated records could mean fewer patronage jobs has limited progress.
“Officeholders have been reluctant to share certain info with other officeholders,” he continued. “Layer on top of that a concern that us becoming more efficient means we can reduce headcount and you get the added reluctance of people not wanting to give up the jobs they control.”
Others aren’t optimistic.
“Over two years ago I went to a rollout meeting where they stood up and told us this would be happening anytime next week. And they are still trying to get it together,” Reardon said. “It’s a strange county.”