'Virtual Justice' system will speed the work of GF District Court

Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Green Forest District Court Clerk Jennifer Jacobs lugs a load of heavy, old-fashioned court records. Those days will soon be over.

GREEN FOREST -- Technology is affecting all of our lives more and more every day.

Go back 20 years to the time when most of us first heard about the "World Wide Web." We were told that soon computer communication that had been around since the 1960's would be used to connect computers we would one day have in our homes to bring all the information in the world to us with the click of a button.

Phones once wired to the wall are now carried with us wherever we go, and can play movies and hurl angry birds.

We also heard about virtual reality. Although that technology has not jumped into our homes much yet, Virtual Justice has landed in Green Forest, and it is making the reality of administering justice much more efficient.

Virtual Justice is a case management system that is now in use in over 150 courts in Arkansas. The system will allow Green Forest to move away from four to five inch thick volumes of court records on paper, to digital records that can manage it all much more efficiently.

Jennifer Jacobs, the District Court Clerk in Green Forest has been overseeing the installation and transition which began on March 9.

Jacobs, who started with the court Aug. 19 of last year, explained the process so far and what can be expected in the future.

The initial installation was followed by training for her and Jody Phillips, the Green Forest Police Department dispatcher and administrator who will be working together with the system.

Jacobs noted that one of the biggest benefits of the new system will be the time savings. She gave an example. The day before our interview, she had a request for a criminal background check for a woman who was 30 years old. Jacobs went to the records room and grabbed 13 four inch thick books from the shelves to start thumbing through to cover the years since the subject turned 18. Added to that, the subject had been married at some point so she had two names to search for. The search took nearly two hours. With Virtual Justice, the names typed into the computer would bring up all the records for the subject.

Virtual Justice will also help to resolve another issue Jacobs wants to correct in her new job: The situation of overdue fines and penalties.

Currently two thirds of time payment accounts with the courts are more than a year overdue. Collections are slow when the best method available is a form letter in Microsoft Word that has to be opened, updated for each account and printed and mailed. Jacobs said that each letter takes nearly five minutes to prepare, and with two hundred of them to generate, there are only so many reminders that can be generated. When you add to that trying to keep up with name changes and addresses on multiple paper forms, it has been a staggering job.

Virtual Justice not only generates these letters in bulk, when payments do come in, the system updates all the necessary records, rather than having the clerk note the payment on seven different forms as they had been doing.

Jacobs is very excited about her new job and is enjoying the transition over to the new system. She thinks the data entry phase of the process will take about another 90 days or so, but after that, the time savings will be tremendous and will allow the court to turn much needed attention into bringing revenue back into the system through the improved collections.

Speaking of revenue, Green Forest Mayor Charlie Reece said that was one of his favorite parts of this acquisition. The bulk of the $10,000 price tag was paid for by the Court Automation Fine Enhancement fund, which for more than 20 years has added $5 to every fine collected in the state to pay for computer automation of courts in small towns that normally couldn't afford it. Green Forest's piece of the tab was just over $200, plus $300 a month for the licenses and technical support.

With the prospect of time savings and improved collections, Mayor Reece agreed with Jacobs that it will be a great investment for the people of Green Forest.

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