Episode 023: The Paperless Prosecutor’s Office with Guy Sweet

When time is of the essence – as it often is within the prosecutor’s office – it’s never been more true that some requests just can’t wait for the delays that paper creates. In this episode, Guy Sweet, assistant prosecuting attorning for Ingham County, Michigan, shares his perspective on the impact paperless solutions have made for the prosecutor’s office.

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Kate Storey: Welcome to the Paperless Productivity podcast, where we give you the tips, tricks and know how to solve your biggest workflow challenges, and bring great productivity into your workplace every day.

We’ve talked a lot in this podcast about the many different ways that courts, government offices, insurance agencies, and even our own offices have benefited from having a paperless solution in place. But what about the legal and law enforcement sides of the equation? After all, they are a key part of the justice system with their own unique set of challenges, and many different elements come into play with any each department. And when time is of the essence, as it often is within the prosecutor’s office to ensure the public safety, it’s never been more true that some requests just can’t wait for the delays that paper creates.

Today we’re joined by Guy Sweet, assistant prosecuting attorney for Ingham County, Michigan, and he’ll be sharing his perspective on the impact of paperless solutions have made for the prosecutor’s office. Guy, thanks for joining us today.

Guy Sweet: You’re very welcome. Glad to be with you.
Kate: Great. Well if we could start out, can you tell me just a little bit about your role and what your office is like?
Guy: Certainly. We are what I would call a large size prosecutor’s office. We have 30 employees and more than 30 support staff. So, we obviously have a fairly heavy caseload. The load’s also very diverse because unlike some district attorney or PA offices, we do more than just criminal prosecution. We do a lot of that, but we also are involved in juvenile delinquency proceedings, child protective proceedings, which is known as abuse and neglect. We handle paternity and child support, mental health commitment, and a few other miscellaneous matters. So, we have a lot of different types of files to have to deal with.
Kate: Okay, great. And then when you started your career, you started out as a criminal attorney, so can you walk us through what it was like to have a paper-based process when you were in that role?
Guy: Yes. In fact, in reminiscing about those days, one of the first items I purchased with one of my first paychecks was a sample case. Because I was assigned to the misdemeanor traffic court and it was not unusual to go through 30 or more files in a day.
Kate: Oh, wow.
Guy: And these were all paper and … you know, documents, police reports, etc., stuffed inside Manila folders. And I needed this big old briefcase to carry them around. At some point I upgraded to a luggage cart and that was kind of my experience in moving files to court. As with most offices that are paper, we had a large central file room where you might or might not find the file you’re looking for. And the files didn’t really have a formal organizational system. Each attorney more or less adopted his own system of how you’re gonna organize your police reports, or lab reports, or work product, or legal research, or what have you. So, it was not uniform at all.

Locating files was always a challenge. If someone called me like a defense attorney, or a witness, or a victim called me on the phone, I’d have to take a piece of note paper and write down the message. Then I would have to go in search for the file. Now you’d think the file would be in a central file room, but that was true only about half the time, because the file could be on a clerical assistant’s desk, could be in an attorney’s office, could be with an attorney over in court. So it was kind of a paper chase trying to track down the file so I could then recopy the note into the file so whoever handled it next knew what the attorney, victim, or police officer wanted to discuss.

Kate: Yeah, what was the process like if … for locating that file? I mean, was there a kind of like a checkout log or something like that in place? Or was it just a kind of a guessing game trying to track it down?
Guy: More of a guessing game. We used to have these out cards, where if you pull the file you’re supposed to put the card in there. But we found that people either wouldn’t do that because they were in a hurry, or they would put the out card in there and never take it out of the rack. So, it wasn’t a real reliable way of determining whether the file was there or not.
Kate: Yeah, it wasn’t a perfect system, huh?
Guy: Far from it.
Kate: Yeah. So what was the turning point that made you really want to switch over to a technology based solution in your office, and what were some of the factors that made you decide on the solution your office ultimately chose?
Guy: Well, I think one of the factors, I think, was just plain envy. There was a smaller county adjacent to ours. They went paperless. They were one of the pioneers in Michigan for paperless prosecution. And their elected prosecuting attorney was very, very supportive, very strong advocate for that system. And so we also, at that same time, were having some issues with documents coming into the office and not ending up where they were supposed to go. We actually hired a consultant to spend … I think he spent two or three months in our office studying the ways that documents would come into and go out of our office. And he was trying to identify, I guess what I would call paper portals, where things were coming and going. And because we would have people drop things off. If a police officer came in and wanted us to issue an arrest warrant, he or she would bring a police report with them, hand it to a clerical person or an attorney, and eventually, hopefully, it would go into a file.

We would receive stuff in the US mail. We would receive things over a fax machine. Occasionally our attorneys would be in court and be served with a document, like a discovery demand by a defense attorney, or a motion or something of that nature, or documents by the court. And then, again, the challenge was making sure those got into the file. So, the people who were gonna work on the case next knew what was going on in the case.

So we studied these various portals where papers come in and out and decided that we had to centralize that somehow. And the way we chose to do that was by creating a digital file, and then the documents that belonged in that file would be scanned and indexed by an employee who was specifically dedicated for that purpose. So we set that up so that documents would come to the scanner, he or she would then scan them in and index them into where they belonged.

Another issue we had was what other kind of technology do we need? And the decision was made to invest in laptop computers for all of the attorneys or any other staff people who had to leave the office to perform their jobs. That way the files would become portable.

Kate: All right, well, it sounds like there’s a lot of benefits to that, but did you get any pushback from anyone, or did you experience any challenges in getting people to adopt the paperless prosecutor solution?
Guy: Well, the only so-called pushback would be for people like me who had been at this office forever, and weren’t really tech savvy. We had some trepidations about paperless, but eventually once we caught onto it, it was fine.

Now, there were challenges. The one was about scanning and indexing documents, because we had to actually create an office position and hire staff to perform this scanning function. There’s also a … when you do scanning, there’s also a risk that the document would still end up in the wrong place or maybe go out into the cyberspace someplace. Our criminal cases are given a criminal tracking number. The prefix is the year in which the case was begun, and then there’s a six-digit number that follows that. Well, if the scanner transposes two numbers in that case number, it’s not going to go where it’s supposed to. So it’s one of those things the staff just has to be very careful about, be very conscious of, and very intentional about making sure you scan something into file 11122 instead of 11221, because it wouldn’t be there.

Another challenging area was coordinating with our courts. In my county, several of our court systems aren’t run by the county, they’re run by various cities or other municipalities. And we weren’t all on the same page as far as courtroom technology. One of our courthouses, it was very old. There weren’t a lot of places to even plug in a laptop computer and so we had to struggle with those agencies and their funding units to get the court rooms up to speed so that we could not only plug our computers in, but also use wifi because our systems wifi based. And that that took some time. So there was a time that we were kind of hybrid. We would have our digital file, our master file, but sometimes we would have to make a paper file to go over and perform our work in a specific court.

I remember one particular courtroom, the nearest electrical outlet was six, eight feet from where I’m supposed to sit. So, I had to go to Ace Hardware and buy an extension cord. Just didn’t think about that. But now our courtrooms are all pretty high tech with docking stations, and because more and more, not just our office but the defense bar and others, are now paperless. So that was kind of an issue.

Another challenge we continue to deal with is storage space for files that take up a lot of memory. And we’d discovered this problem with body cam footage, dash cam footage, or perhaps a suspect interview, or witness interviews that are being recorded. Because these audio files take up a lot of memory, and we found we weren’t able to actually put those into the specific case file. We had to create a separate home for those. And we’ve had to expand on that because it keeps getting filled up because of these videos can … if you have a dash cam that’s on for an hour, that takes up a lot of memory.

Kate: Yeah.
Guy: So that’s been kind of a modern challenge we’ve had to face.
Kate: Okay. So you talked a little bit about this, but for those that are in the criminal division, what is life like for them now, and how has it improved the wheels of justice in your observation by having these paperless options, and making things a little bit more better connected?
Guy: Well, one advantage is a actual physical space savings, because we don’t really need a central file room anymore because all of our files are digital. Ease of transport is another big advantage. I don’t need my big briefcase anymore.
Kate: Right.
Guy: I can roll to court with my laptop. I can access any file that I need, either for that assignment or any other one that I need to look at. Document organization is a lot smoother because each file has designated folders where specific types of documents belong. We have one for police reports, we have one for the defendant’s lien printout or criminal history. We have another one for documents that we received from the court, such as scheduling orders or things like that.

So it’s a uniform document organization system. So if I access one of these digital files and I want to read the police report, I just go to the file folder for police report, click on it, and I can read all the reports that are in there so it makes file organization a lot easier. I talked about the rigors of having to locate a file. I don’t need to do that anymore. All I need to do, if I know the criminal tracking number, I can search by number, or if I know the name of the defendant, I can search by name, pull up the file, and I can just read it right here from my desk. I don’t have to walk over to a file room and hunt around for a file or ask somebody if they’ve seen it lately-

Kate: Right.
Guy: Or anything like that. So it makes us more efficient with our time.

And then another … maybe this is more of a challenge than anything else, is once you convert to a digital system you have to upgrade the system, which means everybody has to at some point, couple of times a year, turn in their laptops so our IT department can go into them and update any of the software or applications that are in those. And it’s just one other thing we just have to be very conscious of and intentional about, is that that once you start this system you have to upgrade it.

Kate: And I know you were also once a Freedom of Information Act officer for the county, and you handled public requests for those documents. But before you had this system in place that you’re describing, what was it like responding to those requests without a technology solution in place versus what it’s like now?
Guy: Well, I’ve talked a couple times about the difficulty of accessing a file. In a FOIA case, ease of access is really important because … a couple of years ago the Michigan Freedom of Information Act was amended to include not only strict time deadlines on when we have to comply with a request or turnover a document, but there are also substantial monetary penalties if we don’t do it on time.
Kate: Oh, I see.
Guy: So the … it’s really important to get to that file, get to the document that’s being requested, and review that before release.

The other thing the digital system helps us with is redacting FOIA exempt information from the document. In the old days, I’d have to xerox the document on a copy machine. I’d have to take a pair of scissors and literally cut out any of the exempt material, and then I’d have to copy it again.

Kate: Yeah.
Guy: So that we have a redacted copy to turn over to the person who requested it. In our digital system, we can do highlighting and redacting by the computer rather than have to make hard copies and cut them up with scissors and recopy them. And again, because of our time deadlines, anytime we can save steps or save time is just like money in the bank, literally.
Kate: Yeah, that’s exactly what I was thinking, I’m sure that really helps with that time deadline that you’re often facing with that. So yeah. Well that’s a pretty big difference in all these different areas that we’ve talked about.

So now you’re in the child support enforcement area, so can you tell me a little bit about what that involves?

Guy: Sure. Each state has a different child support establishment and enforcement method. We have what I refer to as the three-legged stool, and the three legs of that stool are the Department of Health and Human Services, my office, the PA office, and the Friend of the Court, or FOC. The Department of Health and Human Services is really the pipeline, it’s where we get our cases. Because if a child is on public assistance, the public assistance software is supposed to interface with the child support software and create a child support referral that automatically gets sent to the prosecutor’s office for further attention.

The role of the prosecutor is what we call order establishment or paternity establishment. We do the genetic testing, we determine whether or not the person is the father, we get a court order recognizing him as the father, and then we get what’s called an initial support order. That order then is transmitted to the Friend of the Court office because they’re our enforcement or collections agency. And they basically live with the case until 10 years after the child emancipates. So, as you can imagine, they accumulate a lot of files, whereas we move them through quickly. We may live with a case for two or three months, Friend of the Court has to live with us for up to 28 years.

Kate: Wow.
Guy: So, file storage, file management is a big deal.
Kate: I would imagine also for legacy as well. When you have a turnover in the office, you have people that are retiring, and new employees coming in. I imagine it’s pretty important for that element as well.
Guy: Yes. In fact, the state of Michigan expends a lot of time, money, manpower into training. In person training, webcasts, conferences, we spend a lot of time on that and we receive a lot of grant money from the federal government, and one of the things we have to show them is that all of the support professionals are being trained particularly with respect to confidentiality and security, and I’ll talk about that a little later.
Kate: Okay. Well you also used the same technology solution when you moved over to this new role from your old one, but you configured it a little bit differently for the child support division, right? So, what were the administrative challenges you were facing in this new child support division when it was all paper based?
Guy: Well again, the old problem of locating a file. We have 10 people on our paternity and support team. So there are at least 10 or 12 different places where a file might be.

Another issue we had with paper is if I needed to look at a file that was being worked by the Friend of the Court office, I would have to go down to their office, go into their file room, have somebody pull it for me, sit down and read it, make copies of anything I needed, bring it back up and put it in our file. So that that was a challenge. Putting notes in a file was a challenge because we would have a … on the left side, inside left side of the Manila folder, we would have a note sheet. So, again, if somebody called me and gave me some information about a child support case, I’d have to jot it down, go find the file, rewrite the note on the note sheet so the next person who handled it knew what had happened.

Organizing documents within the file is, again, there was no real set way to organize documents. So everybody kinda did their own thing.

Kate: And I imagine from the confidentiality side of it too, that’s probably a challenge with not being certain that the information that is being checked out is being properly cared for in terms of the confidentiality for the child. Depending on-
Guy: Right.
Kate: Where it’s located, where it’s being housed at temporarily.
Guy: Right. And confidentiality is really, really important in the child support system because the software that we use contains what’s called federal tax information.
Kate: Okay.
Guy: Which is information that is technically owned by the Internal Revenue Service. And they have strict requirements about how that information can be viewed, shared, and stored. So, we have to be really careful about that, and that affects some of our internal processes around here.
Kate: Yeah. So, we’ve talked a lot about the challenges that have been part of having a paper-based system for this office. So, tell me a little bit about your office today. What does it look like without paper?
Guy: We have a lot of empty file cabinets. If anyone out there wants to buy some, we’ve got some.

Because of this federal tax information and confidentiality issue, we had to create kind of a hybrid system where our master file, our main file, is in fact digital. But when the attorneys have to go to court to present a support recommendation to a judge, we have to actually print documents in the digital file, put them into an old fashioned Manila folder and walk them over to court, because we can’t take a laptop over there because it might have this federal tax information.

Kate: I see.
Guy: So we still kind of have a little bit of dealing with paper, but it’s very short term. We only create the file, we go do our hearing, we come back, we shred the documents, and move onto the next case. So we’re not storing cabinets full of files.

It’s more efficient to enter notes in a digital system because if a custodial parent or noncustodial parent calls me and provides information about his or her case, I can just pull up the file and type that in to a specifically designated note screen. I don’t need to write it down on a piece of paper and go find a file and recopy it and so forth.

So and we get a lot of phone calls here from people with questions about their case, or they want to tell us they’ve moved and have a new address, or they’ve changed jobs and we need to get their income information. Our Friend of the Court office went paperless a few years after we did, and now I can not only look at my own unit’s files, but I can also look at these Friend of the Court enforcement files. So if I’m having a case with the parents who have an older child who’s already subject to enforcement, I can go look at that file and I can find all kinds of valuable information about the parent’s income, what current orders are in effect, what current child support’s being paid, etc.

It’s also like with the criminal division, it’s easier to find things in files because we’ve created special file, or folders within the digital file to create, to house any documents we send to or receive from a court. Any kind of correspondence, any financial information, any information about where somebody may or may not be living.

One difference between the way our criminal … or our child support division works in our criminal division works, in our criminal division we have designated persons, employees, staff who scan and index documents. Down in child support, we all scan and index documents because almost all of us have face to face contact with custodial or noncustodial parents. They may come in for a meeting, they might hand me a paycheck stub. Well rather than walk it down to somebody else to scan, I have a scanner at my desk and I just scan it into the file myself. And so it makes our work a little more efficient. So, we’ve kind of set that process up a little differently.

Kate: Okay. So, do you think your staff would go back to a fully paper-based system if they could?
Guy: No, I don’t think so. In fact, only three of the people on my staff of 10 ever even remember paper files. Everybody else came in after we were paperless, and they’re just … that’s what they’re used to. And no, I have not heard any sentiment to going back, and I don’t think we legally can because of some changes in state law that I’ll talk about in a minute.
Kate: Sure. Okay, so beyond what you’ve already accomplished with the paperless solution in place, is there anything you have an eye on for the future?
Guy: Two things, the first thing is … I think it was three years ago, our state legislature passed a series of laws that require all Michigan courts to A, go paperless and B, accommodate e-filing. So that rather than take a … like let’s say we type up a paternity complaint, rather than walk the paternity complaint down to the clerk’s office and file it into a Manila folder, we are in the process of setting it up so we can just transmit that electronically. The federal system has done e-filing for quite a while, so we have kind of a model to follow, but it’s a big project because it involves every court in the state. But the expectation is that by a date certain everybody’s going to be on an e-filing system. And to make that work, every court has to have a digital file storage system.

So we’re in that process now, our court entered the first phase and pretty soon they’re going to go into phase two where we’re actually going to start electronically filing our complaints, our orders, our notices, and other type of court documents.

Second thing I’ve kind of got an eye on is once our court can go digital, I’m hoping that there will be a way I can actually pull up and look at the actual court file. As I said before, I’m able to do that with a Friend of the Court enforcement file, but I can’t do that with our trial court files yet. But I think if we’re all on the same imaging system, I should be able to have the wherewithal to look at a court file and make sure that there’s nothing in there that I don’t have in mine, or if somebody went and filed a motion that didn’t serve me, I would be able to pull that up and scan it into my own file. Currently if that happens, I have to call one of the court clerks and ask them to make me a copy and either send it to me by courier or email it to me or something. But if we’re able to interface better, I can actually look at, download documents and save some time.

Kate: It sounds like there’s still some work to be done.
Guy: Yes, indeed.
Kate: well this has just been a wealth of information today, Guy. Thank you so much for taking the time to share it with us.
Guy: Oh, you’re very welcome. Glad to share our experience and hope that maybe we can save someone else some pain.
Kate: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much again, and thank you everyone for joining us today. And if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Paperless Productivity, where we tackle some of the biggest paper-based pain points facing organizations today. We’ll see you next time.

Thanks again for joining us today for this episode of Paperless Productivity. This podcast is sponsored by ImageSoft, the paperless process people, which you can learn more about at ImageSoftInc.com. That’s ImageSoft I-N-C dot com. Join us next time where you’ll learn how to harness the power of technology, supercharge efficiency, and accomplish your organization’s goals.

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