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Paperless File Management

 UPDATED: November 7, 2018

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Why We Did It Transitioning to Paperless How We Do It (with videos) Benefits of Being Paperless Tips / Suggestions FAQs

  

 
The Eaton County Prosecuting Attorney, with the support of the Eaton County Technology Services Office, has successfully transitioned from dependence on physical paper file folders. We now execute our responsibilities and court appearances using "paperless file management". We no longer keep a physical, paper file.


We are among the first prosecutor offices in the USA to "go paperless"!

Changing to electronic files isn't a revolutionary idea; many private industries have already made the switch. But our change has been a revolutionary improvement in how we do the People's business, and is a harbinger of the future for many other prosecutor offices.

On these pages, you will learn why we changed our practices, how we did it, and show you videos of the daily process.

 

 

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WHY WE DID IT


The former Director of our Eaton County Technology Services, Dr. Robert Sobie, initially urged our office to use the county's imaging software - Compulink Laserfiche. He had persuaded several county departments to use Laserfiche to scan closed files, but wanted to expand the use of imaging beyond file storage. His office, (InfoSys) scanned all incoming mail, including invoices, and relied on the electronic version after that point. So Dr. Sobie urged us to do more than merely store scanned documents. He provided the technical leadership for us to eliminate our physical file folders and switch to "Paperless" File Management.

Prosecutors (a term that encompasses Prosecuting Attorneys, District Attorneys, States Attorneys, County Attorneys, and Commonwealth Attorneys) execute their important responsibilities in paper-intensive offices. Most cases begin with a police investigation report being filed, reviewed, a charging decision being made by a prosecutor, and a charging document being authorized. A high volume of cases must be efficiently handled in a fast-paced environment. But the traditional, physical file folder system has always had undeniable drawbacks: inefficiency and storage.


Inefficiency: An obvious limitation with a physical file is that only one person can use it at a time: to read a police report, to make file notes, etc.

 

Significant personnel time is required to create, manage and maintain physical files.  Michigan prosecutors have estimated that at least 40% of their support or attorney staff time is spent creating files, retrieving the file folder each time a document is received for a case, putting the paper in the file, and returning the file to its storage location. The file is retrieved for the attorney to prepare for or attend every event or hearing in court, or so the attorney can discuss the case with opposing counsel, the victim, or the media. Office staff must retrieve a file, copy and mail discovery documents for the defense (police reports, etc.). Victim-witness employees need the file to talk to victims or witnesses. Each time the file is retrieved, it needs to be re-filed. Whether our office has dozens, hundreds or thousands of files, we spend a considerable amount of time simply moving files or paper.

 

Misplaced files are commonplace.  While every file is supposed to be re-filed, they are often on someone's desk, in court, in a briefcase, etc. And, when incoming documents are not timely placed in the file, attorneys appear in court without the latest documents. Some larger offices have tried to keep track of files with bar-coding or using a centralized file room, but the problems persist. Files often cannot be located when needed. "Where's the file?" echoes through office halls, and any real work comes to a halt as staff waste time looking for a file.

Storage:  Prosecutor offices are usually crammed with file cabinets and many offices require separate file storage rooms or off-site storage for case files that have been closed. But, post-judgment proceedings and appeals often compel retrieval of those files within short time periods. Until now, there was no alternative to expending time and money to retrieve those files for post-judgment proceedings.

 


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TRANSITIONING TO
PAPERLESS FILE MANAGEMENT


Timeline
October 2003 Switched file progress notes to computer instead of physical file.
October 2003 Began scanning closed 2003 files.
November 2003 Began sending subpoenas via e-mail to select police agencies.
November 2003 Began sending discovery to defense attorneys via e-mail.
January 2004 Began scanning all new, incoming warrant requests. Maintained a “paper” file. Transition period with both "paper" and "electronic" files in court.
During 2004 Scanned current open cases as time permitted until all files were completely scanned.
June 2004 Interface program completed, linking ACT with LF via "Shift + F1".
January 2005 Stopped making misdemeanor "paper" files.
May 2005 Stopped making felony "paper" files. Office criminal dockets operating 100% without "paper" files.
September 2005 Family Court files (parental abuse/neglect, delinquency) are paperless.
March 2006 Began scanning appeal files & receiving transcripts via e-mail or disk.
March 2007 Child Support division is paperless.

 

Our goal was to eliminate both problems -- searching for and storing files -- by eliminating the files! Our strategy was to make our computers do more work for us, to organize and store our files.

We already had one piece in place: our case management software. Basic information (defendant, victim and witness data; charges issued; scheduled events) are stored in the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan's Adult Case Tracking System (ACTS) and Juvenile Case Tracking System (JCTS). Almost 93% of Michigan's county prosecutors use ACTS or JCTS. In order to eliminate the physical file, attorneys, investigators, victim advocates and legal secretaries had to be able to jointly make progress notes through the computer. So, before we made any other change, we required all staff to begin making their progress notes in ACTS or JCTS instead of the physical, paper file.

In 2003, our County Information Systems director acquired electronic storage (imaging) software -- called Laserfiche, a product and division of General Code -- but similar imaging products are available.] He encouraged county departments to use the electronic storage as an alternative to physical file storage. And, he urged us to go beyond mere storage by using imaged documents on current or pending files. To that end, we developed a plan to switch to electronic or paperless files.

We organized our "electronic file" in Laserfiche (LF) and made the file accessible in a number of different ways. We can access a file by defendant name, victim name, police complaint number, court file number, or the unique case number assigned by ACTS/JCTS that is used to reference the case in criminal history files maintained by the Michigan State Police. Inside that file, we created sub-folders for "police reports", "criminal history", "correspondence", "crime victim rights documents", "photos", etc. LF gave us greater and more fluid organization than any physical file folder.

To be effective, all attorneys and staff required access to the electronic files, even in courtrooms and conference rooms. The county's network was initially hard-wired to all areas of our courthouse, but more recently a wireless network was installed.

And, in order to eliminate physical files, we needed our attorneys to have everything electronic that they would have had with the physical file. So, we equipped each attorney with a laptop computer.

To simplify switching back and forth between ACTS/JCTS and the imaged documents, the I.T. programmers created an interface so that a user simply keys "Shift + F1" to jump from ACTS/JCTS to the documents related to that case.

During 2004, we maintained duplicate files (electronic and paper). This was a major burden on the clerical staff. Much of the delay was simply attributable to caution and getting office personnel ready for the change. We were blazing a new trail, we had no other office to use as an example, and so we took small steps forward. In hindsight, we could have moved much faster. Indeed, we now discourage other prosecutor offices from maintaining duplicate files for any significant time.

Of course, we met resistance to the project internally, and a great deal of skepticism about relying on computers without a paper back-up. But the internal resistance passed quickly; even attorneys who lacked confidence operating laptop computers quickly saw the improved efficiency and advantages over paper files. And we recognize that our success is a direct result of very good computer support, both from our prosecutors association (that maintains ACTS/JCTS) and from our County Information Systems department (that maintains the imaging system and our computer equipment). We would hesitate to recommend paperless file management to any office that does not have good technical support available.

To address concerns over computer failure, the County Information Systems department designed back-up systems to protect both our case management system and the imaged documents. Both systems are backed up nightly to remote locations, so the maximum potential loss of information is limited to one day. We also have a back-up version of our case management system running parallel to our main server in case of its failure. We have not experienced any major failures of the imaging server. The longest failure so far, was approximately 90 seconds long, and went unnoticed by our attorneys.

Eliminating the physical file proved to be liberating. It significantly freed up our clerical staff time. And the attorneys, now operating without a back-up paper file, seemed to accept the "inevitable" and focused on discovering the benefits of using the laptop computers. The legal secretaries soon began to ask for expanded responsibilities. Within a month of operating without felony files, we abandoned a request (which had been submitted with our annual budget for the past several years) for an additional legal secretary.

 

 



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HOW WE DO IT
(In Words & Videos)

 

Document In-take

We receive mostly electronic documents from police, courts, attorneys, the public, etc., but also some paper filings. Electronic documents (usually in PDF format) are emailed to our main e-dress (prosecutingattorney@eatoncounty.org). We also have some direct access to Eaton County Sheriff's Department records database, plus cloud-based storage of body cam videos, etc. New case warrant requests are entered into ACTS/JCTS to assign the Case Key number (a "unique identifier" between our Database and the Imaging program for that specific defendant's case). We must have that identifying number in both applications for our keystroke link (between ACTS/JCTS and Laserfiche) to work. Once documents are entered and given the Case Key Number, we can create our folders in the imaging program by either importing electronic documents, or scanning the paper documents into the folder.

 

Scanning & Creating a Laserfiche File

Paper documents are scanned through a high-speed scanner that quickly makes an image of both sides of every page.

VIDEO: Watch our video showing how paper documents are scanned and entered into our paperless file management system. Documents are filtered through OCR (optical character recognition), which indexes printed words so we can search for words throughout any file, case, or the entire database. Video is 14.3 mb (runs 2:46).

 

Handling Files Received By E-mail

Electronic documents (e.g., PDFs) are printed directly to our imaging program by using a virtual "Snapshot" printer feature. We can print PDFs, MS-Word documents, MS-Excel documents, e-mail, etc. directly to Laserfiche, and totally eliminate paper. We can also import audio files, videos, MS-Powerpoint presentations, etc. and drag and drop .jpg photographs right into file.

VIDEO: Watch our video on how police reports are received electronically and entered into our paperless file management system. Prosecutors receive an e-mail with the ACTS/JCTS number to make a charging decision ("screening"). Documents are filtered through OCR (optical character recognition), which indexes printed words so we can search for words throughout any file, case, or the entire database. Video is 20.6 mb (runs 4:14).

How an APA 'Screens' an Electronic File

Without paper files, how do we charge cases?

APAs are notified by e-mail that they have been assigned to "screen" a case (ACTS/JCTS key number). The APA reviews the basic information in ACTS/JCTS and the documents in Laserfiche (warrant request, police report, criminal history, photos, 911 call recordings, etc.). Electronic "sticky notes" can be added to any file with information, notes, etc. Many audio and video recordings (interviews, police dash-cam videos, policy body-cam videos, store security videos) are stored on DVDs and viewed through a DVD drive.

Statutes are listed in PAAM's Electronic Warrant Manual program. Charging codes and other information are entered into ACTS/JCTS. Charging documents are printed, reviewed and electronically signed by an APA, and printed into the case file in Laserfiche.

Electronic "Discovery"

As soon as we receive notice from the court of a newly appointed attorney, or receive an attorney's appearance document through e-mail or postal mail, we e-mail our discovery documents to them directly from our imaging program (charging documents, police reports, photos, etc.); videos are provided on DVDs if a cloud storage service is not available for that case. Often the attorney gets their discovery before they ever find out they've been appointed to the case. This process is much faster than the old way of looking for the file, pulling the file, copying the documents, typing out the envelope and putting reports in the mail, and re-filing the file. Now, we highlight, click on "Create e-mail" and send, all without ever leaving our desk.

VIDEO: Watch our video on how we send discovery materials to defense attorneys via e-mail (police reports, charging documents, etc.). Prosecutors receive an e-mail with the ACTS/JCTS number to make a charging decision ("screening"). Documents are filtered through OCR (optical character recognition), which indexes printed words so we can search for words throughout any file, case, or the entire database. Video is 22 mb (runs 2:06).

 

How an APA Uses an Electronic File in Court

Our attorneys appear in court with tablets or laptop computers. A wireless network connects them to case management software, which is also linked to imaging software that stores all case documents and evidence (photographs, video and digital recordings). The attorneys access a particular case's documents from the case management program through a keyboard shortcut, which takes them to the electronic file folder and the documents for that particular case.

Because of the power of optical character recognition (OCR), our attorneys have a new, more powerful way to review case documents to prepare for trial. Laserfiche indexes the text in scanned documents. Our computers can now search all scanned documents (with the exception of handwritten statements). The computer quickly search for key words or phrases in reports or transcripts in the file, or throughout all of our cases. (In one murder case, the defendant gave over five hours of taped statements, which were transcribed. Our attorneys, preparing for cross-examination, searched for key phrases, and the computer quickly produced a summary "hit list" of each location in the transcripts where the defendant had made such a reference. A manual search would have taken hours or days!)

VIDEO: Watch our video on how "911 calls" can be played through Laserfiche. Video is 7.5 mb (runs 1:31).

VIDEO: Watch our video on how trial preparation is made easier with Laserfiche. Video is 6.2 mb (runs 1:11).

 

 


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BENEFITS OF BEING PAPERLESS

 

  1. Expanded resources available to our attorneys:  Unlike prosecutors carrying physical file folders, our attorneys have networked access to digital recordings (e.g., 911 calls, photographs, videos) as they conduct pre-trial conferences or appear in court. They also have access to e-mail communication with office staff and colleagues, and electronic legal research.
    VIDEO: Watch our video showing how "911 calls" can be played through Laserfiche.
  2. Simultaneous file access:  More than one person can access an electronic file's notes and documents, which was impossible with physical files. Our office is not self-contained: we have a main office, and our Economic Crimes Unit is located 20 miles away. Yet, we can all access and benefit from all the files simultaneously. This provides a marked increase in efficiency as legal secretaries, victim advocates and attorneys often need to see or add to the same file within minutes.

  3. No lost files: Lost files are typically a daily occurrence in offices dependent on physical files. We do not waste time looking for a file, since we now know each file's precise location in Laserfiche. We can access any file by defendant or victim name, case number, or a unique key number created by ACTS/JCTS for each new file.

  4. Faster, easier discovery:  Prosecutors are required to disclose investigative reports and material to defense counsel, a process called discovery. We now send out discovery as an attachment to an e-mail. It is faster for our clerical staff, and costs less than the US mail. We send it as soon as we receive either an appearance of counsel or the court notice. Consequently, many of our court-appointed defense attorneys receive our e-mailed discovery before they receive the notice of appointment from the court!
    VIDEO: Watch our Discovery video.
  5. Enhanced trial preparation:  Because of the power of optical character recognition (OCR), attorneys in our office have a new, more powerful way to review case documents to prepare for trial. Laserfiche indexes the text in documents. Our computers can now search all scanned documents (with the exception of handwritten statements). Attorneys can use the computer to search for key words or phrases in reports or transcripts in the file. In a recent murder case, the defendant gave over five hours of taped statements, which were transcribed. Our attorneys, preparing for cross-examination, searched for key phrases, and the computer quickly produced a summary "hit list" of each location in the transcripts where the defendant had made such a reference. A manual search would have taken hours or days!
    VIDEO: Watch our video showing how trial preparation is made easier with Laserfiche.
  6. Reduced clutter:  The most obvious benefit is our elimination of the file folders and the file cabinets that formerly cluttered our office. We are a medium-sized office of 10 attorneys. So far, we have eliminated 9 large file cabinets and converted 3 others to other uses, such as holding office supplies.

  7. File security: The contents of physical files are difficult or impossible to replace. Our case management records and imaging system are separately backed-up to off-site locations each night, which is a vast improvement in "disaster-recovery" preparation. Further, in anticipation of any major hearing or trial, we electronically copy the file documents to a USB drive ("thumb drives", "jump drives") or to the hard drive of a laptop. While it is possible that both the network and a laptop will fail simultaneously, the odds are small, and if the documents are on a USB drive, we will simply move them to another laptop.

  8. Administrative advantages: All office records are organized and stored in Laserfiche. Security levels determine which folders can be accessed by which employees. Every attorney has a folder to flexibly store documents.


 

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TIPS / SUGGESTIONS FOR OFFICES
THAT WANT TO BE PAPERLESS

 

Paperless file management is not an "If", it is a "When?"!

Private industries such as banks and airlines have already moved to electronic managed accounts and files because of the reduced cost and increased efficiency. The taxpayers deserve efficiency and reduced cost of governmental operations too. In our opinion, this project is a model that local government must eventually adopt.

Our success has been noticed throughout Michigan and across the nation. Former Eaton County Prosecuting Attorney Jeff Sauter has made presentations about our "paperless" file system to the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, the Michigan Association of Record Managers, the North Carolina District Attorneys, the Pima County, AZ County Attorney's office (Tucson, AZ), and several times around the country for the National College of District Attorneys' various administration conferences. These presentations have resulted in numerous contacts for additional information from prosecutor offices, IT directors, software developers and state association directors.

Our project can be and is being replicated by other prosecutor and governmental offices. We have also hosted site visits from approximately 18 other Michigan prosecutors and State departments. The Livingston County Prosecuting Attorney's office has completed its transition to paperless files and several others are close behind.

Most prosecutor offices and governmental offices are already equipped with computers. Those offices simply have not used the equipment to the fullest extent of the computers' capabilities. While the up-front cost of imaging software and scanning equipment must be considered, it is much cheaper than the personnel costs that are inevitable with paper file management.

Here are some tips for offices considering paperless case management:

  1. Record all file notes in your electronic case management system.:  Eliminate duplicate file notes (in both electronic and paper files)! All notes are now in a central location, and you have no handwriting concerns.

  2. Begin scanning all documents:  We scanned closed files backwards for a full year, but do not recommend that same approach to other offices. The significant benefits of using electronic files are not evident until the office begins scanning current documents and files. Assign one employee as "the scanner".

  3. Extend your network to the courtrooms and conference rooms:Wireless is best.

  4. Switch from desktop to laptop computers for office attorneys.

  5. Stop making paper files!


 

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FREQUENTLY-ASKED QUESTIONS

 

 

What do we need to buy? What are the costs?

  • Scanner: Document scanners can cost from $100 to $5,000. (Get a "document scanner". Flat-bed scanners are too slow for this project, and only copy one side at a time.) Our scanner copies both sides at once at 90 pages per minute.
  • Computer: Desktop PCs cost less than laptops, but laptops are the only practical solution for bringing your electronic files from your office to the court room, to conference rooms, etc.
  • Imaging Software: Costs will vary by company, types of licenses, numbers of licenses, etc.

 

Do you scan everything?

Yes. Even mail is scanned.

Does scanning change the work assignments?

No. The only thing that has changed is that now they view the documents on the computer instead of cluttering their desks with paperwork.

 

How many people do you have scanning in your office?

One.

 

How does an attorney look at the file outside the office?

For attorneys to look at file they must copy file to their laptop hard drive or onto a Jump Drive / USB Drive for them to look at the images. (One gigabyte thumb drives can cost under $20.) At this time the attorneys cannot sign into our system outside of our County Buildings but we are looking into this option.

How do you handle discovery?

We send most of our discovery materials (police reports, charging documents, etc.) to defense attorneys through E-mail, directly from our imaging program. This is done as soon as we are notified of the attorney being appointed or retained. Large discovery files (usually with photos, videos, soudns clips, etc.) are burned to CD-ROM or DVD.
VIDEO: Watch our Discovery video (22 mb; runs 2:06).

What folders do you use?

Folders in Laserfiche (and, probably, any other Imaging program) can be created any way you prefer. It is very flexible! We create one folder for each case (usually identified with the ACTS/JCTS case number, or the court's docket number). In each folder we create folders for Charging Documents, Police Reports, Defendant Information, L.E.I.N. (criminal history), Photographs, 911 calls, etc. In large cases, we may label each police report, supplemental report, witness statement, etc. separately in the Police Reports folder so we can find them easier.

How are your attorneys notified of Motions, appeals, etc.?

When the documents come in either through e-mail, regular mail or fax, they are scanned and the attorney handling the case is notified via e-mail of the information that has come in; a file note may also be made in ACTS/JCTS that the document was received. Also, the secretary for either Circuit Court or District Court, and other prosecutors, are e-mailed the same.
VIDEO: Watch our video on how APAs are notified about recently received pleadings and correspondence(9.2 mb; runs 1:51).

What happens if your computer crashes?

We have back-up procedures. The County backs up Laserfiche daily. PACC/PAAM backs up Adult Case Tracking and Juvenile Case Tracking daily.


 

 

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Why We Did It Transitioning to Paperless How We Do It (with videos) Benefits of Being Paperless Tips / Suggestions FAQs

 



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