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Achiever finalist: Notes brings order to the court

State prosecutors in Virginia manage court cases using a customized Notes/Domino-based system. The ambitious project has made this IT organization a finalist for's annual Achiever Awards.

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of profiles of Achiever Award finalists. The awards recognize IT achievers at user companies who design, build and manage complex IBM Lotus technologies. Winners will be announced next week at Lotusphere 2004, in Orlando, Fla.

There are 120 elected prosecutors in Virginia, and Dick Whetstone, an engineer who works for the state, wants them to use his new software, a Notes/Domino-based system for managing court cases.

The system, called the Virginia Commonwealth's Attorneys' Information System (VCAIS), automates the work of a prosecutor's office, at a time when fewer people than ever are around to do that work. At the offices of 36 of Virginia's prosecutors, the tool provides attorneys and support staff with quick access to pending court dates, status reports and witness information. Administrators use VCAIS to produce witness subpoenas and answer questions from the bewildered recipients of the forms. And, in one jurisdiction, prosecuting attorneys are accessing the system wirelessly from within the courtroom.

In Virginia, as in other states, telephone work is overwhelming prosecutors' offices. Many people phone to find out the details of the cases they've been called to testify for -- the names of the defendants or the names of the prosecuting attorneys. At offices where VCAIS is not installed, caller inquiries are difficult to answer.

"Prior to VCAIS, the witness lists were contained in the case folders, which were kept in the attorneys' offices," says Whetstone, chief engineer for Virginia's Attorneys' Services Council. "But at offices where VCAIS is installed, it is now a matter of a simple witness lookup."

VCAIS integrates e-mail and calendaring functions. Court dates and case assignments can go straight into an attorney's personal calendar, while notifications are e-mailed or faxed to prosecutors, defense attorneys and police.

These are hard times for the state's prosecutors, who are being asked to do more with less. In recent years, Whetstone has seen the number of support employees in the 120 prosecutors' offices dwindle to below 250 -- which is the standard set by the state. Prosecutors are taking on cases from neighboring jurisdictions, as well as some of the administrative work formerly done by the courts.

Today, most of Virginia's prosecutors are dealing with massive workloads, packed court schedules and phone calls all without the help of computer automation. But, wherever VCAIS is in place, tasks that were once time-consuming now take seconds.

VCAIS, which was developed by a team from IBM Global Services, automates the issuance of subpoenas, perhaps the most time-consuming task of all. The Virginia Beach prosecutors' office alone issued 43,000 subpoenas in 2003. Without VCAIS, staffers had to enter their data into Word Perfect documents, then send diskettes to the courthouse for final printing and distribution. VCAIS does it all in seconds, using point-and-click semi-automated data entry and high-speed printing, collating and stapling.

Whetstone estimates that VCAIS, which also produces felony indictment documents, witness letters and court orders and dockets, has saved Virginia Beach 2,150 hours of labor each year, about the cost of one full-time employee.

That is the kind of savings that reflects well upon an elected official. "There is a lot of input time required up front, but the payoff has been well worth it," says Harvey Bryant, the prosecutor in Virginia Beach.

VCAIS could never have happened without Notes/Domino, Whetstone says.

"The collaborative capabilities, robust environments, and development tools built in to Lotus Notes and Domino were critical to the success of VCAIS," he says. Whetstone says the Lotus Domino versions in use are from version 4.6 to 6.02. Lotus clients are installed on Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT 4 Workstation, Windows ME, Windows XP and Macintosh OS 10.x.

The IBM team that developed the application has since been disbursed. Now the state uses Beverly, Mass.-based Teamstudio Inc.'s Teamstudio Suite for Notes to manage, maintain, and troubleshoot the application. VCAIS also relies on Snap Reporter from Cokato, Minn.-based Paisley Consulting; that tool produces reports from Lotus Notes applications. And the state also uses Mayflower DocViewer from Acton, Mass.-based MayFlower Software Inc. The Mayflower tool is a template for viewing the fields and contents of Notes documents.

Despite VCAIS' impact on the work of Virginia prosecutors in places like Virginia Beach and Norfolk, where prosecutors access VCAIS wirelessly from their laptops, prosecutors elsewhere in the state have been either too reluctant or too short on funds to adopt the system. Since most of the funds for VCAIS come from "asset forfeitures" from drug busts, a jurisdiction for a community that lacks a significant drug problem cannot yet afford it.

The cost per seat, which is now less than $500, is declining with each new jurisdiction. VCAIS currently has 870 users statewide, and Whetstone expects to install VCAIS at as many as seven new sites by June 2004, bringing the number of jurisdictions using the system to 43.

Bryant says VCAIS has helped his office take on thousands of new cases from a neighboring jurisdiction. But it will not only save prosecutors' time, he says -- it will also help them provide better statistics to state legislators and even bring justice to more victims' families.

"By shortening the amount of time spent doing paperwork, we're able to move more quickly on individual cases," Bryant said. "The statute of limitations is something that is always very much on the minds of prosecutors."

Mark Baard is a contributing writer in Milton, Mass.


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