App lets Kentucky judges read criminal histories from the bench

App lets Kentucky judges read criminal histories from the bench

Benchpro records plea bargains and judgments, as well as transmits information to other agencies, such as the motor vehicle office


Kentucky's Jefferson County District Court is piloting a new application that gives judges immediate access'from the bench'to a defendant's criminal history during court proceedings.

Benchpro allows judges to enter a defendant's name into a search engine that retrieves the complete documented criminal history of an accused individual. A judge also can instantly see on a computer screen any outstanding criminal warrants for the defendant.

The state's Administrative Office of the Courts developed the application with the help of judges, clerks and court attorneys.

Benchpro is part of KYCourts, Kentucky's statewide case management system implemented last year.

Benchpro resides on a 700-MHz Pentium III IBM Netfinity server running under Novell NetWare 4.0. The system accesses a Microsoft Access 97 database.

Quick access

Judges access court records using 300-MHz Pentium III IBM GL PCs with 64M of RAM and running Windows 98, with touch-screen monitors from MicroTouch of Methuen, Mass.

District Court Judge Virginia Whittinghill aided in Benchpro's development and said the application helps judges make decisions when setting bond.

'When a person stands in front of me in court, I can automatically see what else might be out there on that person,' Whittinghill said. 'I can see if the defendant is wanted in other counties on other charges. If there is a summons for the defendant that has not yet been served it will appear in red on my screen. And while the person is there in my court, I can have the sheriff's office serve the defendant with other warrants or summons.'

Whittinghill said she can enter into the system a defendant's plea, any judgments she makes in court, as well as the amount someone is fined in a case'all without leaving her bench.

Judges can also view directly on the computer screen when a prosecutor and a defense attorney have made a plea agreement.

'What used to happen in a plea bargain case is the judge would take the agreement and hand copy it and then sign it,' she said. 'Then a clerk would have to convert that agreement into a statement of 25 characters for the statewide data processing center. Then the state would convert it into another language. The entire process could sometimes take two months to complete.

'Now I can bring a case up on my screen, and I can tell immediately if a prosecutor has made an agreement with the defense because it will appear green on my screen. I can then enter the information I need to enter, and we can print it out right there in court.'

'When a person stands in front of me in court, I can automatically see what else might be out there on that person. I can see if the defendant is wanted in other counties on other charges.'
' Jefferson County District Judge Virginia Whittinghill
Whittinghill said that under the old system, the prosecutors were stuck with making plea agreements blind, without knowing an accused offender's criminal history.

'Prosecutors love the new system because they can go back and see past charges that have been made against the defendant,' Whittinghill said. 'They can see things like if a drug offender has already been offered a drug diversion program in the past. They are no longer left in the dark when making plea agreements.'

Chief Judge Kevin Delahanty said the new application makes everyone in the criminal justice system, including judges, more accountable for their actions.

'The system helps us keep track of officers that write tickets but don't show up for hearings and how many times the officer is marked not present,' Delahanty said. 'You can follow certain patterns, such as cases where charges are amended down. We can see who the soft prosecutors are. Same thing for judges. The courts can follow which judges are setting bonds too low or too high for that matter. There is more accountability from the judge to the clerk.'

The Benchpro system sends information entered from the court directly to the departments of Transportation and Corrections.

'If someone has their license revoked, the information will be transmitted directly from my bench to the Transportation Department,' Whittinghill said. 'Or if a police officer wants to check from his PC the status of a case or when he is scheduled to appear for a hearing, he can do it through the system.'

Work anywhere

Whittinghill said the courts initiated the idea for the system in 1995 when Kentucky was dealing with year 2000 issues.

'We determined to start in a large area like the Jefferson courts, which includes Louisville,' she said. 'We decided that if we could devise a system that worked here, at the speed we need in order to deal with the high volume of court cases, we felt comfortable it could work anywhere in the state.'

Delahanty said the state is in the process of determining who should have access to the system and how much information they can have access to.

'Defense attorneys don't like the system because judges and prosecutors now have at their fingertips criminal histories of defendants,' he said.

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