Court officials decry outdated technology

Better technology and more support staff could improve how well the Mecklenburg County's justice system runs, the county's top court officials told members of a crime task force on Wednesday.

They said the county is woefully behind other communities in its computer systems, and the digital divide even persists among local law enforcement agencies.

For example, Public Defender Kevin Tully said the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is “outstripping” his office in its technology programs and his staff sometimes can't open information sent over by the department.

Meanwhile, District Attorney Peter Gilchrist said his office doesn't always have ready access to a person's criminal history or driving records in courtrooms.

“There's just a wealth of information that could improve the process and flow if we had access to it,” Gilchrist said.

N.C. judicial officials currently are updating a statewide computer system, which could debut in 2010.

But Gilchrist said he believes the system won't be adequate to handle Mecklenburg's workload. He wants the county to have its own computer system to better suit its needs, and said state officials have promised money to pay for the technology.

Clerk of Superior Court Martha Curran also touted the need for better technology, but said there could be problems with the county using a computer system different than the rest of the state.

Mecklenburg put together its own computer system in the 1980s, but Curran said her office was flooded with faxes from officials in other counties who could not access the system. When the state later required all counties to use the same technology, Curran said it took a lot of manpower to transfer the county's data to a new system, which didn't always correlate with the state system.

The court officials also discussed the need for more support staff, and money to boost the pay of its employees. Gilchrist said he loses staff because of their pay and workload. Meanwhile, Tully said he tells his attorneys during job interviews that they'll have to spend time copying their own files because his office doesn't have enough support staff.

Wednesday marked the second meeting of the crime task force, and members will spend the coming weeks meeting with other top law enforcement officials, touring the courts and jails and learning about other programs.

The group will offer recommendations to county commissioners in September. Some members noted the work will be more complex than they originally anticipated, but said they are up for finding ways to improve what many call a broken criminal justice system.

“We can build more and more jails,” said Maudia Melendez, executive director of Jesus Ministries. “But if we don't fix this system, then it's going to be a vicious cycle that will go on and on and on.”