Not OK Computer
More than a year after Dallas County debuted a disastrous criminal justice computer system that kept inmates locked up long after they were supposed to go free, defense attorney Deandra Grant tells her clients to expect the worst.
"I tell them, 'Even if your sentence is up today, it's very possible you're still not going to get out,'" she says. "I tell them that so they don't freak out."
It's the same old story. Propped up by $4 million in state and federal funds, the county's Adult Information System (AIS) can't find defendants or generate accurate data for everyone else. In addition, the Dallas Police Department, a major piece in the criminal justice complex, can't use the system. AIS is not ready to handle such a massive user. But despite a miserable track record, the tiny start-up that developed AIS may get an additional $400,000 from the county on the rather bold claim that it provided additional services not specified in the contract.
"I won't be supporting making the payments," says Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher, who may be overruled by her three Republican colleagues, each of whom has championed the flagging program. "One of the reasons I'm not for paying them is that DPD can't go on the system."
Last week, Robert Clines, the county's chief informational officer, drafted a memo that made the case for paying off InfoIntegration, which won't be renewing its contract when it expires this summer. His main reason was that the firm's help desk worked long hours during the start-up period to "ensure AIS was successful." In fact, it was so "successful" that when AIS went live in late January 2005, the Lew Sterrett Justice Center devolved into a third-world jail. Between program glitches and user error, the county simply lost track of inmates as if they were tattered CD cases that slid under a car seat. Inmates remained in jail for weeks after judges disposed of their cases, generating a maelstrom of ugly headlines and inevitable lawsuits.
In a county like Dallas, there has to be some sort of database to keep track of the thousands of inmates in custody as well as defendants on bond. Has their case gone before the grand jury? Do they have a court date? Has their case been dismissed? For police departments, AIS was supposed to allow them to book defendants after they arrested them and share data with other jurisdictions.
But by nearly all accounts, the new system the county put in place last year couldn't handle the number of cases entered into the program. There were basic problems as well with how data was shared between the mainframe program that the courts had been using and AIS, which included vital jail information. The county would later pay Microsoft nearly half a million dollars to study the failing system. Last October, the software giant released a scathing report on AIS documenting how it is doing only 54 percent of what it is supposed to do for the court system and 30 percent for the jail.
"It was awful when it started," says Dallas County Chief Public Defender Brad Lollar about AIS. "We couldn't find people in jail. We knew they were there; we had talked to them in court, but then you went back to the jail and you couldn't find them."
Lollar, who believes that AIS has improved, says that its early problems lingered for four to six months.
"Everybody working in criminal defense had clients who were lost in jail," he says.
Meanwhile, although Clines' memo singles out the hard work of InfoIntegration during the start-up phase, writing that some staffers put in 90-hour work weeks, the Sheriff's Department was billing the county for hundreds of thousands of dollars in over-time costs. During the first three full months after AIS went live, the Sheriff's Department billed a monthly average of $202,067 in overtime expenditures, compared with $12,635 for the same period in 2004.
"There is no question that the transition from the old mainframe system to the new system was the main reason for the overtime staffing," Don Peritz, the spokesperson for the Dallas County jail, writes in an e-mail message. "The system duplicated some records and did not transition many of the old records...accurately into the AIS system. Clerks had to go back and research those records as well as debug the new system at the same time...It was not a pretty picture."
While AIS no longer engenders the types of epic failures it did during the start-up phase, the diverse crime and punishment clique that relies on the system still encounters serious glitches.
Peritz says that AIS is now operating at about a 90 percent success rate. Still, the system continues to generate false reports on its inmates from time to time.
For court administrators as well, AIS is about as reliable as a French sedan. The information the program is supposed to track, from court dates and locations to bond information, is sometimes flat-out wrong. Meanwhile, court officers spend hours on routine tasks that used to take a few minutes. "We just didn't have these problems before," says Debbie Daily, the court coordinator for Criminal District Judge Mary Miller. "I could pretty well tell you anything on the old system and feel comfortable that it was correct. Now I may look at something for 20 minutes and can't figure out if it has all the information I need. It's gotten better, but you can't always trust it."
On April 4, a day after Clines drafted the memo on InfoIntegration's $400,000 balance, a Commissioner's Court subcommittee dealing with technology issues heard more complaints about AIS from people on the front lines of the program. One county employee testified that defendants are still showing up to the right court at the wrong time or the wrong court at the right time. In addition, a new audit found that the computer program still delivers "unsatisfactory results." Conducted by the county auditor's office, the report documents how the program fails to meet basic benchmarks for business performance. Like all financial reports, the language of the audit doesn't exactly evoke that of Keats, but it still paints a clear picture nonetheless.
On the topic of how the program keeps track of millions of dollars in bail bond accounts, the report notes:
"Financial information is inconsistent, misleading or incorrect, requiring time-consuming reconciliations."
Depending on their size and financial resources, bail bond companies have a prescribed limit on how many bonds they can issue. This is an arcane but important part of the criminal justice process. But AIS is not keeping good financial records, which creates liability for the county and confusion for the courts and bail bondsmen alike. Mark Monroe, a manager at Delta Bail Bonds, says that AIS doesn't automatically dismiss a bond after a case has been adjudicated. As a result, the county will tell him he can't pay out any more bonds, even though he knows that he hasn't exceeded his limit.
"They've shut me off before, and I've told them first thing in the morning I'm going to the judge to get a TRO," says Monroe, who sits on the county's Bail Bond Board.
Perhaps more important, Monroe says that while the old system helped bail bondsmen keep track of their clients' court dates, the new one does not. Sometimes he may not know that a client missed a court date until 30 days afterward.
Unlike the old system, AIS does not help bondsmen accurately keep track of their clients, and the end result is that people who are on the run end up running longer, Monroe says. "My business hurts, and from a community standpoint, it's dangerous."
While some court clerks whisper that the entire AIS program should be scrapped, other people in the criminal justice system insist that it can eventually be a major upgrade over the slow and counterintuitive mainframe system the county has relied on for decades. The AIS program includes all sorts of valuable data on criminal defendants in one place, including court and jail information, a book-in photo, and personal and physical info. But those records are useless if they're not accurate and accessible.
Meanwhile, the original failure of the county's new computer system--its inability to keep track of defendants as their cases move through the system--has not been remedied. Grant, the defense attorney, says that her clients routinely stay locked behind bars past their sentences. She says she doesn't know how the breakdown is occurring, whether sheriff's clerks are entering wrong information into the system or whether the program is overrun with glitches. But as the U.S. Justice Department is investigating the jail for a troubling lack of health care as well as a host of sanitation problems, the county might as well draft a template for plaintiffs' lawyers if it continues to hold defendants past their release date.
"I had pregnant women who I made deals with prosecutors to get out of jail and they stayed in jail for another three days," she says. "It's getting to the point where it's the norm instead of an occasional screw-up."
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