Views expressed in this blog are mine alone and are not intended to represent Williamson County policy nor intended as legal advice.
Since taking office on January 1st of this year, Justice of the Peace Pct. 4 has made significant changes and updates to improve our processes and make our building more welcoming and efficient.
In our goal to achieve a paperless office by the end of the year, we started by cleaning out the office of old, outdated and unused materials. We had seven truckloads of pure trash we removed from various offices. We gathered unused office supplies and electronics and shared them with other county offices. We stopped standing office supply orders and moved to an on-demand system to reduce redundancies and costs.
A major part of moving to paperless will be our adoption of Odyssey, the database used by all other county entities. We have worked through our first data review with excellent results, matching fields from our current outdated database to Odyssey and finding multiple areas of concern for the database team to address before adoption. Our current plan is to go live on Odyssey in December.
We painted the courtroom and lobby waiting room to make them more welcoming, adding artwork and informational brochures and packets. Newly installed monitors offer information about cases that come before the court as well as information about community resources and activities.
For the children that our constituents often bring with them, we created activity bags with coloring pages, crayons, and books to keep them occupied while their parents fill out paperwork or wait to see a clerk. We also allow children in the courtroom and added changing tables to both the men’s and women’s bathrooms.
We are in the process of painting offices to make our workspaces more user-friendly. We’ve also relaxed our dress code for both staff and constituents.
We reduced the number of printers in the office and encourage the use of networked printers to save money on paper and ink. We moved to a mail meter system after finding $32,000 worth of stamps during the office clean up. Most of those stamps were turned over to the auditor’s office to share with other county offices and some retained. Moving to a mail meter improves accountability and reduces the risk of abuse.
We’ve made major changes to procedures by creating standing orders to streamline processes, assist our constituents and in the interest of justice:
• Anyone who spends 8 hours or more in the county jail who has a Class C misdemeanor charge with our court, will have that fine paid in full with jail credit.
• Defendants under the age of 21 can request community service in lieu of paying their fines
• Payment plans no longer require proof of indigency
• Defendants can ask for deferrals and payment plans at the window without seeing the judge
As of 7/31/2019, we had the following number of cases filed in our court, listed by type:
• Debt Claim – 908
• Small Claim -88
• Evictions - 529
• Criminal – 1,163
Upon reviewing case files, we brought Warrants, Show Cause and Ticket processing up to date. We reduced our trial backlog by 75% and reduced our backlog of Debt Claims cases so we are working on cases no older than 2018.
Through these processes, we have dramatically reduced the number of paper files in the office. We shredded 200 boxes of court files and documents that did not need to be retained. We permitted the county warehouse to shred 268 boxes of files from our court that were past their retention dates. We sent another 206 boxes to be stored at the warehouse, archiving all closed cases through 2017 and eliminating the need for multiple vertical files.
Additionally, we changed policies and procedures to drastically reduce our paper usage and redundancy, saving taxpayer dollars and trees. Catching up on cases, sending older cases to the warehouse and cleaning out offices have freed up space, resulting in the added benefit of significantly increasing access and mobility and reducing hazardous work conditions.
Our staff, new and retained, have all received training through the Texas Justice Court Training Center and several have attended the Legislative update offered by TJCTC to understand the new laws and rulings that will impact our court. We’ve turned our conference room into cubicles for our Civil staff, creating a space where they can confer and work as a team.
We have upgraded to laptops and allow overtime as needed. We encourage clerks, especially tenured clerks who have accrued a large amount of vacation time and comp time, to take a vacation when realistically possible.
I have attended training outside of the required basic training for new judges in death inquests and mental health. I've reached out to area funeral homes to assist in transport during inquests and developed a strong working relationship with the Travis County Medical Examiner’s office as well as local law enforcement.
In the interest of justice, we dismissing 884 and ordering a cease and close on 304 TxDOT cases after regulatory changes made to toll violations. We are evaluating Driving While License Invalid cases to determine which ones are a result of DPS surcharges only in preparation for the elimination of the surcharge program on September 1.
Moving forward, we hope to eliminate the need for the rolling files that take up the lion’s share of space in the main office. Currently, 2.5 of those cabinet files are filled with office supplies as we have no other storage space. As we transfer to Odyssey and go paperless, these cabinets will no longer be needed. We hope to have them removed, storage space reclaimed and cubicles set up after the first of the year.
Recognizing the limited access to mental health care in our precinct, we’ve begun researching alternative means of fulfilling deferred requirements for juveniles. There are several options on the table and we are still very much in early discussions but hope to have something in place by the end of the first semester of the 2019-2020 school year.
In short, it’s been a busy and exciting first eight months. We’ve made significant changes to systems, procedures and processes both to speed up case handling and in the interest of justice. We’re looking forward to going paperless and further reducing costs. By continuing to leverage technology, we hope to make Justice Court Precinct 4 a new standard for Williamson County.