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June 2009

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Collaborative Approach Cuts Postage, Saves Time

Imagine printing out five different sentencing forms for each defendant in a case, making copies of each form, placing this mass of paper—sometimes upwards of 70 pages—in an envelope, and mailing it to the U.S. Sentencing Commission where the data is collected. Now multiply that by the over 76,000 original sentencings annually. The postage costs alone are daunting.

To remedy the situation, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) developed an electronic submission system, in use by 94 districts, that allows the courts to transmit images of the sentencing documents in PDF format instead of mailing them, saving postage costs and the inconvenience of copying. And with the Probation Office in the Southern District of California, they’ve begun developing the next phase, a web-based service.

Realizing the value in this electronic transmission, George Hoggan, Information Systems Manager for the Probation Office in the Southern District of California and Dan King, systems manager for the Probation Office in the Eastern District of Washington, thought that with a few refinements to the Electronic Probation and Pretrial Services System (EPPS), staff could accomplish this task with a push of a button. The next release of EPPS, collaboratively developed by Hoggan and Programmer Aileen Calabia, with input from King and the EPPS Working Group, will make this possible.

EPPS is a feature of the Probation/Pretrial Services Case Tracking System (PACTS) that is used by offices nationwide. PACTS and its Document Imaging application allow probation and pretrial services offices to manage documents electronically, and scan, store, and share key documents in electronic format within the Judiciary. A recent enhancement to the application now allows users to send documents electronically from PACTS to agencies outside the Judiciary.

“The application enhances usability of electronic documents by automating what was once a very labor-intensive process. When the USSC developed its own electronic submission system then followed up with a web-based service, the natural progression was for us to send electronic documents directly to them using the application,” King explained. “Court support staff can view data and documents in the system; do a quality assurance check to be sure everything requested is there; then push a button. The information is sent.”

“Over the past few years, the U.S. Sentencing Commission worked actively with the district courts to move away from copying and mailing hundreds of thousands of pieces of paper,” said USSC Staff Director Judith Sheon. “In the first phase of automating this process, we developed a highly successful system that relies on the creation of PDF files transmitted electronically. For the second phase of automation, the Commission has worked with the Probation Office in the Southern District of California, and continues to work with the AO’s Office of Probation and Pretrial Services, to develop a web-based service for the transmission of documents, which should promote further efficiencies.” The web-based service means documents now can be sent directly from the PACTS application.

“We save paper, time, and money,” said King. Some documents, e.g., the judgment, presentence report and indictment are acquired electronically. Other documents can be scanned into the PACTS Document Imaging system. “Scanning still takes time,” he said, “but once they’ve been scanned, the documents are used for multiple purposes.”

The application also catalogs, tracks, and quickly retrieves documents electronically.

“Previously, we’d send all the documents and, down the road, we’d get a report back telling us which documents were missing,” said Ruth Romero, clerical services manager in the Southern District of California where EPPS originated. “Sometimes we had a list of 1,000 case names, or more. People would come in on weekends and after hours to pull all the documents together manually. Now, PACTS tracks what was sent and stores the documents. We don’t have to re-copy. We just re-send electronically.”

As a bonus, when other districts request presentence reports or judgments in a case, it’s easy for staff in one court to attach the documents to an email and send them to the requesting court. The documents also can be sent to federal agencies such as DOJ’s Office of Federal Detention Trustees, in addition to the USSC.

The Probation Office in the Southern District of California initially piloted the application working closely with the USSC to make the design compatible. “The probation offices in the Eastern District of Louisiana, the Eastern District of North Carolina, the Northern District of Georgia and the Southern District of Texas are part of the pilot program,” said John Hughes, Assistant Director of the AO’s Office of Probation and Pretrial Services. “We’ll ask for feedback on the application by the end of July. Then, hopefully, we’ll begin a national rollout of the application in September.”