Apr 13 2009

Grant links court computers

By STEVE DOYLE

Shelby finds funds to better share sheriff's arrest info

High-tech Huntsville is surprisingly low-tech when it comes to sharing information about crime suspects.

Because computers used by the Madison County court system, sheriff's and district attorney's offices are not compatible with one another, those officials communicate the old-fashioned way: by phone, fax and hand-delivered papers.

That's changing.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, recently secured a $1.5 million federal appropriation to link those agencies' computer networks together. He is scheduled to announce the plan at a Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce breakfast this morning.

Madison County Circuit Clerk Jane C. Smith said the improvements will "make our criminal justice system much, much more efficient."

Now, the Sheriff's Office starts electronic case files on every person arrested for a crime. But prosecutors, court officials and judges cannot access the files so all that information must be retyped.

With about 10,000 new criminal cases a year in Madison County, that's a lot of typing.

"It's a duplication of work," Smith said. "We want our computers all the way through the criminal justice system to be linked so we can share information. With Huntsville being the high-tech capital of the Southeast, we feel our criminal justice system should be leading in this area."

The computer integration plan will happen over about a three-year period, she said, and could later grow to include police departments in Huntsville, Madison, Gurley, New Hope, Owens Cross Roads and Triana.

Heather Douglas, spokeswoman for Madison County District Attorney Tim Morgan, said her office gets a paper copy of the county jail log each morning. Clerks retype the information while also fielding phone calls and questions from visitors, she said.

Even a minor data entry error in the DA's files can slow down prosecutors, Douglas said Thursday.

"We're hoping this will enhance our ability to spend more time in court and less time having to transfer paper documents," she said. "Hopefully, we can look up the information we need and have it at our fingertips, rather than having to wait on the paper transfer."