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September 2008

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


Crime Victims Benefit from Flow of Court Information

The Victim Notification System (VNS), an automated system used by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to notify more than 1.5 million registered federal crime victims of developments in their cases, will add more data on court events thanks to a cooperative venture with the federal courts.

The Judicial Conference approved a Memorandum of Understanding with the DOJ to develop an interface between the federal Judiciary’s Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system and DOJ’s VNS. Every night, court event information—notices of hearings, sentences, etc—can be extracted from the CM/ECF system and electronically passed to the VNS. Three district courts are now testing the interface: the District of Kansas, the District of Colorado, and the Northern District of Illinois.

“With the interface, crime victims are getting the most timely notice possible of case events,” said Chief Deputy Clerk Ingrid Campbell, in the District of Kansas. “The information is reliable and the transfer happens with very little effort by the court. Whatever is documented that day automatically goes to the DOJ database that night.”

The District of Kansas has been live with the pilot for several months. The District of Colorado has participated for over a month, and the Northern District of Illinois is scheduled to begin its pilot in late September.

Over the last decade, Congress has enacted several pieces of legislation addressing the needs of crime victims, including most recently the Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004. Victims must be notified of significant stages and procedural developments in the criminal justice process. Victims must be kept aware of the status of an investigation of a crime, including subsequent prosecution, trial, incarceration, and location and custody status of the offender related to the crime. The VNS is designed to do that, notifying victims by automated letter, e-mail, or a toll-free telephone call center as well as providing Internet access to victim information.

The VNS also notifies victims of court events, such as competency hearings or when a guilty plea is entered. Prior to this initiative, data on those court events was maintained by the Judiciary and had to be sent to DOJ, where it was manually entered into a database by personnel at individual U.S. Attorney offices then transferred to the VNS.

“The interface with CM/ECF means data can be converted without re-entering and the possible loss of accuracy,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kurt Shernuk in the District of Kansas and the DOJ Project Manager who has worked with the federal courts on the pilot project. “And there’s a bonus for the federal courts. It’s a great resource for federal probation officers who will have access to the database and the notification capabilities of VNS.”

As part of the MOU with DOJ, districts participating in the CM/ECF data transfer will have passwords to access the VNS. Electronic access to the database replaces the spreadsheets or printouts previously provided to a probation office by the local U.S. Attorney or the case agent.

Bryce Beckett, a senior U.S. Probation Officer in the District of Kansas, along with Senior Probation Officers Milt Ruble and Michelle Caples, who have tested the system, say the VNS saves considerable time when tracking down victim information.

“Victims have access to the VNS and can keep their own contact information up to date,” said Beckett, “which increases our success in reaching them with news of convictions, sentencings, their right to speak at sentencing, and possible restitution.”

“The interface is a real benefit to probation officers who have to prepare victim-impact statements,” added Clerk of Court Chris Vagner in the District of Colorado. “Our officers were given training by DOJ on how to use their system. Now, they’re able to use DOJ’s system to build letters for them with all the victim information and the correct hearing information.”

The VNS actually creates the letters probation officers send to victims. “It’s an unbelievable help,” Beckett said, who recently used the VNS to notify more than 300 victims in a case.

According to Leigh Kinzer, Operations Administrator in the District of Kansas, a court needs to have version 3.2.2. of the CM/ECF system to participate.

“The system asks the court to verify a series of deadlines at start-up and the court must approve transfer of data to the VNS,” said Kinzer. “Then it’s a completely automated process.”

“Really, it’s the database that’s doing the work,” Campbell said. “This is as simple as pie,” Vagner agreed. “It was the easiest implementation of a system we’ve ever had. Courts just have to be careful to set hearings at specific locations. But from the perspective of the clerk’s office, I can’t think of reason why a court wouldn’t do it.”