Monday, January 28, 2013

Court Case Management Systems Part 7: Criminal Charges and Data Sharing

This chapter in our court case management series discusses criminal charge-related issues.


Court Case Management Systems Part 7: Charges and Data Sharing

By James McMillan and John T. Matthias, January 2013

This was a hard article to write.  There are so many factors involved in criminal case charges and compliance that it is difficult to address them in a short blog post.  We would recommend looking at the following reference documents for much more complete information on this subject.

But because we promised in the last article to try, here goes with some observations and tips:

Charge Tracking

Criminal charge tracking is a conundrum in the USA state courts for many reasons.  First, it is complex because the criminal justice system is complex, possibly requiring reference to both state and local charges in a single case.  And, second, because of the way that criminal history system rules work, the CMS must continue communication and data sharing with justice partners.

Complexity comes in many forms.  First, legislative statute coding must be stored and linked to the charges entered against defendants.  Statute codes are often updated by subsequent legislative action to amend different aspects such as a change in associated penalties.  So the CMS must have beginning and ending effective dates associated with the statute code.  And older statutes and penalty schedule must also be maintained intact that are applicable to crimes that allegedly occurred during a previous time period.  (The same applies to municipal ordinances.)  In addition, there are national charge codes that must be associated with the state statute codes for reporting purposes.  These codes may or may not match how a state has organized its state statutory law.  So some national codes may map to multiple legislative codes (yes, it is very messy).

(Also please note that Municipal charge codes are not tracked for national reporting.)

Second, statutes have penalties associated with them and may also have other associated factors, such as penalty class (Misdemeanor 1st degree, Felony 3rd degree, etc.), charge enhancers (such as when a gun is used), suspension of particular licenses, and specific surcharges that will be applied if found guilty.

Third, most often charges are associated with specific persons.  However corporations and other organizations may be criminally charged also.  Therefore it is recommended that not only the three name “western convention” (first, middle, last) should be supplemented with a “full name” that is a long text field allowing for capture of other cultural name structures, such as “XYZ Corporation.”  My favorite example of another cultural name structure is persons from Brazil (Portuguese structure) who often have five or more names with their surname highlighted in the middle, increasing the difficulty of identifying the best surname to be associated with the charge.

Criminal History and Statistics

Criminal history database systems (separately at the local, state, and federal levels) provide many challenges to the CMS.  There are historical and technological reasons underlying these issues that are beyond the scope of this article.  We can identify, however, some characteristics of charges in tracking them statistically.

First, charges in many jurisdictions that were originally alleged by law enforcement may not be the charges that are sent to the court by the prosecution.  But courts need to be able either to receive every charge that has ever been associated with the person for the case, or be able to back-connect to the charges in the partner justice agencies.   If every charge is received, the court needs to change the former charge status to “dismissed,” “not charged” (nolle prosequi), or some other status designation such as “superseded by grand jury indictment.”  Those former charges would likely not be shown as part of the case record.  In other words, they are for administrative and statistical purposes, such as connecting the arrest charges reported by law enforcement with the charges prosecuted by the prosecutor and with the charges convicted in court.  Can the CCMS track the changes in charges from stage to stage?  (Is this required by statute?)  It gets worse.

Second, the “lead charge” is often associated with statistical counting.  Now, as you know, charges may change after law enforcement originates the charge, when the prosecutor files the charge with the court.  The “lead charge” may also change after a plea bargain is agreed and the final conviction is recorded.  Can the CCMS designate the “lead charge” after a plea bargain changes the charges?

It is simply a messy situation that consumes a lot of time and effort by all members of the justice community.


As stated in the NCSC Criminal Functional Standards (see link & note below), September 2001, page 12:
“As has become apparent in recent years, the criminal court cannot function in an information vacuum that excludes the criminal justice and non-justice agencies. Interfaces must exist with law enforcement, prosecution, public defense, and corrections, as well as with non-justice agencies that maintain records on such topics as criminal spousal and child abuse, sexual predators, firearms ownership and usage, and victim information.

Case management systems center on the disposition as the primary indicator that a particular case has completed its journey through the court process, although there are variations in different jurisdictions. It is important to note, however, that the use of disposition information does not end when the courts dispose a case. Each state has or is developing statewide repositories of criminal history information. This collection of criminal history information contains information on the individual and their relationship to the criminal justice community including information on arrests, charges, and disposition of cases. Case management systems must be capable of passing case disposition information to these state repositories for the purpose of "clearing charges" on the information systems maintained by the law enforcement agency that performed the arrest and who provided the initial charges to the Prosecuting agency.” (Please note that the ASHX extension is used here to send a PDF file.  So if you are saving the file, change the extension to PDF so you can open it later.)
The Charge Document GJXDM IEPD message identified 28 potential information exchanges in the courts (page 15).  At various points in the process – after arrest, after the prosecutor files charges, after conviction or acquittal in court – charge information is exchanged among various participants – the criminal history repository, law enforcement, prosecution, and the courts.

And coordination of charges with other aspects of the case involves other messages, including custody status of defendants, scheduling court appearances, connection with other case matters such as domestic violence protection orders and probation violation, and warrants from other cases or jurisdictions.  The person’s status such as whether they are a drug or sex offender, a repeat offender, a holder of licenses such as a commercial driver’s license, and whether they are a member of the military, will result in additional messaging.

This is why NIEM and related standards such as LegalXML Electronic Court Filing are important.  They create a common language that allows data to be shared.  And CCMS are at the heart of these data exchanges and therefore must be designed to easily, and securely, accomplish this work.

Compliance and Consequences

We will address compliance in the next article, as we ran out of space this time.

Links to previous articles in the CCMS 2012 Series:

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