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December 2009

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


OPERA Brings Information Directly to Probation Officers

A new web-based system is giving probation officers ready access to offender fine, restitution, and special assessment data thanks to the collaborative efforts of Judiciary staff in four districts, and the assistance of the Administrative Office (AO). The Offender Payment Enhanced Report Access (OPERA) system is now available through the Probation and Pretrial Services Automated Case Tracking System (PACTS). OPERA lets the civil and criminal accounting modules of the Judiciary’s financial accounting system talk directly to PACTS, eliminating calls to the clerks’ office where the payments are processed.

“We wanted a system where officers could easily access information about payments made by offenders while under supervision,” said Don Martenz, a probation officer in the District of New Jersey who worked with Information Technology specialists to develop OPERA. “Historically, officers would have to contact the clerk’s office for that information. Depending on how busy the clerk’s office was, the response might take an hour, a day, or even a couple days if the offender was from another district. But if the data could be drawn from the accounting modules and accessed through the PACTS database, officers would be able to obtain payment information themselves, any time.”

Now, a probation officer logging into PACTS automatically launches OPERA and can pull up the offender payment report; case financial history, including all of the dispersals; and the summary payee balance or the amounts owed to each victim. Searches for information can be made by name, social security number, and marshal or case number. Reports also can be exported to an Excel spreadsheet or as a PDF document.

“If John Doe walks into my office, or I make a home visit, and he says he made his most recent restitution payment last month, I can easily verify that while he’s sitting there,” said Martenz.

The search for a system that would allow probation officers to access financial information began in the Southern District of Alabama in 2007 with Clerk of Court Chuck Diard.

“Our financial department is fairly small and we’d get calls from probation officers requesting offender payment information,” said Diard. “For probation officers, it was a hassle to call and wait for information. I thought it might be beneficial, and ease the burden on the court, to have the data available in a web-based browser.” Diard tasked Information Technology Support Specialist William (PJ) Isbell, with the development of an OPERA prototype. At the time, neither Diard nor Isbell knew that Eric Swanson, a programmer analyst in the District of New Hampshire, and Kevin Beaulieu, a network administrator in the District of Maine also were separately looking for a similar solution.

“When I sent the prototype of my system around to a few courts for comment, Eric caught some code errors and made some revisions. And then I learned Kevin also was programming a system. We were working on similar systems without knowing it,” said Isbell. “That’s when the AO pulled the three of us together to collaborate on a national solution.”

The threesome soon became a quartet. “With Eric and Kevin, we had the technical expertise,” said Isbell. “Martenz helped refine our focus. He screened OPERA for functionality, telling us if, for example, the icons we used would make sense to officers.”

The AO’s Accounting and Financial Systems Division (AFSD) collaborated with the OPERA team. The data used within the OPERA reports resides in the Civil Criminal Accounting Module (CCAM) of the individual court’s FAS4T financial system. The AO provided CCAM report design documents to assist the team in designing its OPERA reports. Access also was provided to the 94 separate FAS4T databases so that the required financial information could be retrieved.

“The difficult task of connecting to 94 separate databases was solved by an innovation of using a single user ID to connect to a gateway database,” said John Lalley, of the AO’s AFSD. “This approach greatly simplified the complexity of data retrieval for the team.” The collaborative effort of court and AO contributed to OPERA’s short development turnaround, from a first meeting in mid-July to the launch of OPERA on October 30.

“We started out with a basic database,” said Martenz, “but over a couple of months, we turned OPERA into a nice reporting tool. Officers can access OPERA anywhere they can access PACTS, and now we’re working on a mobile version for Blackberrys.” OPERA also will be made available through the Judiciary’s Case Management/Electronic Case Files system in a future release.

OPERA can be accessed only if the district uses CCAM. But for the nearly 80 districts currently using the modules, OPERA also lets probation officers check fee and restitution information on offenders who are relocated from other districts or who have cases in multiple districts.

“While an offender is under court supervision,” said Martenz, “probation officers are required to monitor payments and enforce the court’s payment orders. Because one of our goals is to help make victims whole again, it is important that we can see what is owed and what has been paid.” Martenz added, “By providing officers easy access to offender payment information, OPERA also will prove useful in the development of an outcome measurement system, of which the payment of fines and restitution are a key component.”