Probation officer John Serre spends much of his day in front of a computer screen in his Duluth office.
His job is to compile the criminal histories judges use when they set bail, or sentence a convicted criminal.
Sometimes the best work is done at the grass roots level.Tom Roy
When a new court data system went on line a couple of years ago, his job suddenly got much more complicated.
He had to search multiple databases to make sure he wasn't missing information, and the data was in a confusing, complicated form.
Let's say he's doing a criminal history on Joe, who has about 30 records in the court system. To prepare a report, John Serre needs to to click through several pages for each record, print them all, and then condense the pertinent information into a report for the judge.
He compares several search programs used by criminal justice professionals.
"I'd say in CriMNet that would be 60 pages. In SSS that would be 90 pages, or if you went to MNCIS that would be potentially 90 to 120," explains Serre.
Checking all those records might easily take two or three hours. Not every case was that complex, but the process was slow and frustrating.
Today John Serre can do that same search in a few minutes and print a concise 13 page report for the judge. The difference is a new software that searches and sorts the court records. He says his workload is reduced, his reports are more accurate, and he's more relaxed.
"Let me put it this way. If this hadn't come out, I'd really be looking at retirement," says Serre. "Because I'd go nuts if I was going through each one of these trying to print it out. You just can't do it."
Minnesota has spent an estimated $200 million to build a system to collect and share criminal justice data. The vast network is overseen by an organization called CriMNet. The agency mission is "providing the right information to the right people at the right time".
But users complain the system is too complicated and often gives them more information than they need.
The new software created by probation officers is causing a buzz throughout Minnesota's criminal justice system because it's so easy to use. Judges, prosecutors, even federal court officials want permission to access the software. One Minnesota district court judge who's seen the system calls it "fantastically usable and succinct".
It's a remarkable success for a criminal justice information system plagued for years by frustrated users.
What's more remarkable is how quickly it happened once John Serre and his colleagues took over the process.
Let's back up about a year and a half. Probation officers across the state were frustrated, so they asked for help from the state criminal information system.
But CriMNet officials didn't have the money to take on another software development project. Those projects often cost several hundred thousand dollars.
So probation officers convinced counties to chip in some money and they hired a small software company to create a new search engine. The Court Information Summary Report (CISR) searches the database maintained by the state court system and produces a concise report.
Paul Schroeder works for Ramsey County Corrections and chairs the task force that developed CISR.
Schroeder says the software cost less than $50,000, and will save probation officers thousands of hours of slogging through piles of paper. He says, for example, Hennepin county probation does about 3,000 searches a month.
"Our costs were trivial compared to any of the other statewide systems and I would contend one month in Hennepin alone saves as much money as our whole development cost," says Schroeder.
Schroeder says the project was successful because it was focused, simple and cooperative.
He says the state court system provided easy access to raw data. CriMNet, the organization charged with managing information sharing, offered meeting space and support staff.
Schroeder says he'd like to see CriMNet play the support role more often, rather than taking the lead on projects.
Other criminal justice professionals around the state agree.
"Sometimes the best work is done at the grass roots level," says Arrowhead Regional Corrections Director Tom Roy.
The new software is a relatively simple solution but one that might have broad impact. If probation officers reports are more timely and accurate, judges will have more confidence in them, according to Roy. That could reduce court delays, and allow judges to make better decisions about things like setting bail.
"Knowing who you're locking up and knowing who you're letting out of the door is probably one of the most important decisions we make in the criminal justice system," says Roy. "We better know who we're doing that to because on either side of the door it's very serious. It's serious for the people who are in jail and shouldn't be and it's serious for the people who aren't in jail and should be."
CriMNet Taskforce member Deb Kerschner calls the project a success story. "I think it's a very good example of how different agencies in different geographic areas can work together to solve a common problem, utilizing not only resources that the state provided, but local resources that they collaborated and pulled together," says Kerschner.
Probation users own the new search engine, but say they're in discussions with the state court system about ways to make the search tool available to criminal justice professionals like judges and prosecutors who are also looking for an easier way to manage criminal justice information.