The Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office worked with Salesforce to reverse engineer 100 years’ worth of case-centered data and processes.
A lawyer with the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office saw a notice pop up in a case file mistakenly stating that a client was in violation of probation and must appear in court in 10 days. The attorney figured out what the problem was, rectified it and provided evidence to a judge on the assigned court date. The judge nods and sends the client home.
That might not sound notable, but until the 107-year-old public defender’s office, the country’s largest, went digital in 2020, it took weeks for a paper probation violation notification to find its way to the lawyer’s desk. The client might show up at court unaware of the offense and get booked into the county jail until everything is sorted.
“They’d be in county jail for weeks and in many cases they’ll lose their job and they will lose their home because they can’t pay rent,” said Mohammed Al Rawi, the office’s chief information officer, adding that the new digital, cloud-based system is “not only about cost savings, it’s not only about efficiency. It touches people’s lives. It gives a different magnitude of return on investment, and it’s always exciting to see a digital transformation project like this one be successful.”
The Client Case Management System (CCMS), built with Salesforce technology, provides a centralized platform from which all of the office’s 700-plus attorneys and 400 legal support employees can get the information they need. It replaces a century of complexity, reams of paper and 26 disparate databases – the main one was built on COBOL, a computer programming language dating to the 1960s.
“What you inherit when you come to a state and local organization this old is a case-centered data repository,” Al Rawi said. “It focuses on the case, on the process, on the events, but it inadvertently marginalized the people. Residents had to be the center focus of our system. The daunting task was to reverse engineer 100 years’ worth of data entry from case-centered to be people-centered.”
His approach to CCMS was twofold. First, it had to scale to handle ebbs and flows in an office that represents more than 140,000 county residents per year charged with felony or misdemeanor charges. “That is why we chose cloud,” he said. “You don’t need to worry about software, you don’t need to worry about hardware. You just focus on the business and the configuration.”
He’s already seen the benefit of that scalability. While implementing the system, legislation and county policy created three new offices within the public defender’s office, one of which created a new business process, new workflow and a new group of lawyers.
“We implemented that module in a couple of weeks,” Al Rawi said. “Historically, the systems that we created were so focused on what was the requirement that day," he said. “Now we have that flexibility to scale up and add new programs to the system and cancel ones that are no longer relevant to the business.”
It also futureproofs the system, added Casey Coleman, senior vice president for digital transformation in Salesforce’s Global Public Sector division. “We upgrade it for them,” Coleman said. “It is never an old system that’s stuck in the past, that someone fails to patch and then it becomes vulnerable. We take care of all that for them.”
Al Rawi’s second goal was to unify data to cross-check it without requiring different data structures. Over two years, “we extracted all the records from the 26 systems and that’s how we got 160 million records,” he said. “If you think of it, hundreds of tables, columns did not match, so we needed to convert and map data, and then we needed to find millions of duplicate records.”
For instance, the office had 8 million people in the separate systems, but after consolidation and cleaning, that number fell to 2 million.
Because the office works with a lot of personally identifiable information and health records, data privacy and security are imperative. The office adheres to the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services requirements, everything is encrypted and access to CCMS is controlled by the county, not a third party, Al Rawi said. When someone retires or transfers departments, their accounts are automatically deactivated, and if someone who’s logged into CCMS leaves their screen unattended for more than a few minutes, it automatically logs them out.
The system provides attorneys with what Al Rawi calls a digital twin of business processes. “The way we implemented the system, we ensured that it’s exactly identical: the field names are the same, the process is the same, the feel and look is the same. It’s just digital, it’s not paper,” he said.
To achieve that, the office uses more than 60 custom objects on Salesforce’s Lightning platform. “Salesforce is both a platform-as-a-service and software-as-a-service, so the software-as-a-service is the built-for-purpose functionality that can be used straight out of the box with configuration,” but Lightning provides an extension to create custom objects, Coleman said.
That lets the office generate reports that break down data on clients by case, charge, race, gender, age and location, which can be shared with the County Board of Supervisors to help inform decisions about justice reform, Al Rawi said.
CCMS integrates with other justice agencies that the public defender’s office works. It connects with the court and probation systems so that the office gets updates in real time, and it’s connected with the district attorney’s system, which provides access to discovery on cases.
Overall, CCMS saves the office time and money, but “it’s the impact on people that’s the massive ROI for the system,” Al Rawi said. “That system has literally saved residents from potentially losing their jobs or even being homeless.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.