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Accountability and Resource Utilization - Annual Report 2015

Judiciary accountability mechanisms provide for stringent standards of conduct; enforcement of legal and ethical rules; good stewardship of public funds and property; and the effective and efficient use of resources.

Judiciary’s Strategic Plan Updated

In September 2015, the Judicial Conference approved an updated Strategic Plan for the Federal Judiciary. Since the original plan’s approval in September 2010, the Strategic Plan has served as a broad agenda for addressing key issues in a manner consistent with Judiciary core values. It has fostered greater consideration of Judiciary-wide strategic issues during national policy deliberations, while providing needed flexibility and discretion to Conference committees within their areas of jurisdiction.

A draft update of the Strategic Plan was prepared by a group that included Executive Committee members, Conference committee chairs, judges, a circuit executive, and the clerk of a district court. The revised plan includes updated language on the delivery of justice, the effective and efficient management of resources, the workforce for the future, technology’s potential, access to the judicial process, relations with the other branches of government, and public trust and confidence.

GAO Studies the Judiciary

In fiscal year 2015, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted 14 studies involving the Judiciary. Reports have been issued (as of December 2015) in 10 of them:  The Bankruptcy of Financial Companies (required by the Dodd-Frank Act); The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) (regarding funding for courthouse construction and renovation projects); Building Security Screening; The Costs of Enhancing Physical Security in Federal Facilities Since September 11, 2001; The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program; Professional Fees in Large Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Cases; Uses of the Department of Justice’s Direct Spending Authorities and Associated Collections (e.g., fines and restitution), and National Institute of Justice’s Development of Standards for Offender Tracking System. The final reports for these studies either contained no recommendations or the recommendations were not directed to the Judiciary.

The final report in GAO’s study on the impact of sequestration on the Judiciary and Judiciary cost-containment measures, “Federal Judiciary: Improved Cost Savings Estimates Could Help Better Assess Cost-Containment Efforts,” was published in November 2015 and contained two recommendations regarding cost-containment initiatives (as determined by the Judiciary): develop a reliable method for estimating cost savings achieved; and regularly report estimated cost savings achieved. GAO issued a similar study of executive branch agencies in January 2014.

The final report in the GAO study on Federal Judiciary Travel Expenses—focused on judges’ non-case-related travel costs, and the costs of meetings and conferences—was issued in December 2015. The report included one recommendation suggesting the Administrative Office improve its data collection system to collect and identify judges’ non-court related travel costs paid by the Judiciary.

The four remaining active GAO studies look at Access to Video and Audio Recordings of Supreme Court Proceedings; the Department of Justice’s Use of Alternatives for Incarcerating Federal Offenders and Low and Minimum Security Inmates; Lower-Cost Alternatives for Courthouse Security; Programs Authorized Under the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA).

Judiciary’s Internal Control Toolkit Upgraded

In 2015, the Internal Control Evaluation (ICE) system was upgraded and integrated with the Judiciary Integrated Financial Management System (JIFMS), the Judiciary’s official central accounting system that has replaced FAS4T (Financial Accounting System for Tomorrow). With ICE, court managers can evaluate compliance with internal control requirements and Judiciary procurement policies. The application’s separation-of-duties component helps court and defender organizations identify and address practices that may conflict with Judiciary policies that require separate individuals to perform certain financial and other administrative actions.

Self-Assessment Tool Customized for Defender Community    

In 2015, the Self-Assessment (SA) Tool, an internal control resource, was customized for the federal public defender (FPD) community. The SA Tool provides court units and FPD organizations with step-by-step instructions for meeting the annual requirement to assess the adequacy of, and compliance with, internal controls. The tool helps evaluate the risks associated with different categories of administrative activities and advises whether the extent of transaction testing for each activity should be adjusted to reflect the level of risk. At the AO’s FPD Administrative Officers conference in July 2015, 37 FPD organizations received SA Tool training. 

Electronic CJA Voucher System Deployed to All Court Units

The CJA eVoucher product developed by the Nevada District Court and adopted for Judiciary-wide implementation and support is now deployed to all units in the courts of appeals and district courts. It is live in approximately half of those units.

The eVoucher payment system enables electronic submission, management, and approval of CJA vouchers, and includes extensive reporting capabilities. A new financial interface with the CJA payment system has been deployed to facilitate direct deposit for panel attorney payments. 

2015 Audits Conducted

Financial audits are conducted on a four-year cycle for most courts and Federal Public Defender Organizations, and on a two-and-a-half-year cycle for larger court units. In fiscal year 2015, the AO issued final reports for 74 cyclical financial audits.

Sixty other financial audits were completed, including audits of Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy trustees and Community Defender Organizations, and audits in response to a change of clerk or other special requests.

Pursuant to the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, debtor audits are performed to determine the accuracy and completeness of the information contained in the petitions, schedules, and statements filed by a sample of individual Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 debtors. During fiscal year 2015, 63 debtor audits were conducted.

Pilot Begun on Risk-Based Cyclical Audits

With the support of the Judicial Conference Committee on Audits and Administrative Office Accountability, the AO began assessing the results of a risk-based audit pilot with volunteer court units in one circuit, three districts, and one national court. The goal is to revise the cyclical audit program so that each audit reflects the qualitative and quantitative risks present in the particular court unit being audited, with a focus on higher-risk transactions and functions.

Program Reviews Enhance Operations

The court review program provides chief judges and court unit executives (CUEs) with information designed to make their operations more efficient. At the invitation of a chief judge or CUE, the AO crafts a review plan for the court unit’s approval that defines the goals and scope of the review. The AO establishes a review team of subject matter experts and court staff to visit the court and meet with staff. A report is then provided with recommendations that chief judges or court managers can use to reallocate resources, adjust program priorities, change procedures, or initiate other actions to improve effectiveness and efficiency. During fiscal year 2015, on-site management reviews were conducted for six district courts, one bankruptcy court, one pro se law clerk program, 10 federal defender organizations, and 33 probation/pretrial services offices.

Assessment Program Promotes Effective Administration of Defense Services

The delivery of defender services under the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) in each federal judicial district is assessed every four years. In all but three districts, the CJA defender services program is comprised of a federal defender organization and a panel of qualified attorneys, and both components are part of the review conducted by the AO’s Defender Services Office.

The primary goal of the defender services assessment program is to ensure that the defender services program in each district is effectively administered in accordance with Judiciary policies and procedures and the policies of the national defender services program. Assessment teams also verify that supervisory structures, record-keeping systems, personnel management procedures, communication channels, segregation of duties, and operational processes are implemented to prevent waste, fraud, or abuse.

Probation and Pretrial Services Office Accountability Enhanced

In fiscal year 2015, the AO reviewed eight cases, and conducted cyclical reviews of 22 probation and pretrial services offices, and 14 technical assistance visits to probation offices. These reviews increase accountability and ensure compliance with national standards.

The AO has worked to make the review process more thorough and consistent, with better training, updated review tools and reports, and new tracking mechanisms for risk and quality control. Starting in 2015, probation and pretrial services office staff were asked to conduct a self-assessment to help identify and address internal weaknesses prior to their AO cyclical review.

At the direction of the Judicial Conference, new accountability procedures require probation and pretrial services offices to take corrective measures to address any findings that may pose a community safety risk. Offices must submit a timely action plan to the chief judge, with a copy sent to the AO. Follow-up reports are then due to the chief judge annually until the findings are addressed.

Smarter Records Management Curbs Costs

With the Judiciary’s records management space reduction initiative, the amount of paper records locally maintained by the courts has decreased, allowing the reuse or release of records storage office space. To date, more than 6,000 square feet of courts’ storage space has been made available for release or repurposing. The destruction of eligible temporary records also has decreased costs of storage at the Federal Records Center.

The transfer of permanent records to the National Archives and Records Administration and the digital conversion of paper records continue as part of this initiative.

Implementation of the revised records disposition schedules is now focused on bankruptcy and civil case file transfers between 1996 and 1997. A similar phase for civil cases leading up to 1995, as well as 1970-1995 bankruptcy case files, is nearly finished. Once the reappraisal of civil, bankruptcy, and appellate case files is complete, the Judiciary will have reduced its total storage volume at the Federal Records Center by an estimated 950,000 boxes, saving approximately $3 million a year.

Circuits Further Reduce Library Space, Print Collections, and Costs

In 2015, the circuit librarians reported further reductions in library program spending by closing and/or repurposing library space, thereby lowering rent costs; downsizing staff; and eliminating collections that are no longer essential. For example, $1.2 million in legal research subscriptions were canceled in fiscal year 2015. The AO’s Circuit Librarians Advisory Group will continue to explore efficiencies through implementation of a five-year strategic plan, developed by the circuit librarians.

Structural and Organizational Cost-Containment Proposals to be Evaluated

The Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management has established a subcommittee to examine the Judiciary’s organizational structure and to identify and evaluate a variety of fundamental cost-containment proposals. The initiative comes at the request of the Conference Budget Committee, with the support of the Executive Committee.

The subcommittee is comprised of members from each of the affected program committees: the Court Administration and Case Management, Administration of the Bankruptcy System, Criminal Law, Defender Services, Judicial Resources, and Administration of the Magistrate Judges Committees. The subcommittee’s task will be to identify which structural and organizational cost-containment proposals are the most appropriate to study, and then determine whether those ideas are feasible, if they will save money, and what impact they would have on the Judiciary.