The Online Courthouse
How "socially minded software" is making courts more efficient-and helping people in recovery.
by Jan Schlain
From the August, 2019 issue
Bob Ciolek's career has been spent in the courts, first in Taylor and then as administrator for the 14A District Court, which covers most of Washtenaw County. But when U-M law prof J.J. Prescott suggested letting people resolve legal problems online, he was skeptical. It was, Ciolek says, "just not how courts operate!"
But in 2013, the court agreed to join a pilot project testing the software Prescott and a former student had developed. They called it Matterhorn, and they wanted to make it easier for people to resolve arrest warrants.
Michigan courts were jammed with more than a million of them, yet only a relative handful involved felonies. Most were for offenses as minor as failing to appear in court or pay a fine.
"Warrants aren't just costly for the courts to issue, but also terrifying for people to deal with," Prescott explains. "There are all sorts of costs to having a warrant out. That warrant is based on money you owe, and you don't have the money--so you essentially just avoid interacting with the police.
"That means not calling the police when you've been victimized. It means not voting. It means trying to stay away from any place where there might be police or public officials."
Matterhorn was designed to let people check for warrants and respond without risking immediate arrest if they showed up in person. The courts weren't changing the law or forgiving the offenses--but they were making it easier for people to fix the problem.
In the beginning, Ciolek recalls, a lot of people were dubious. But as the results of the pilot project came in, that changed: cases that previously took a month or two to resolve now were being closed in a week. Once his court "put it out there and made it known ... other courts climbed on board," Ciolek says.
According to Prescott, since Matterhorn launched, "probably 60,000 cases have been resolved through the software, and it's grown into other
areas--including small claims court and family court--with the same basic idea: that people should be able to handle a lot more of their legal matters using technology from home."
That innovation--called online dispute resolution, or ODR--is now "taking over the nation," says Ciolek. "It's taking over the courts all over the world."
The idea first surfaced in 2011 when Prescott and a student, Ben Gubernick, were talking about the logjam of warrants. "There are a lot of warrants out there that we felt could be resolved if you could just get two people in a room--the judge and the litigant--and that just doesn't happen," says Prescott. "There's a disconnect. And it winds up being very costly for everyone."
Around the same time, Prescott experienced another logjam first-hand when he went to court to challenge a traffic ticket. According to a 2016 article in the ABA Journal, he "waited four hours and missed a day of work to appear in court for a traffic ticket."
"When you go to challenge your ticket, they just tell everyone to show up at 9 a.m.," Prescott explains. "They don't do individual appointments because people won't show up for them, and they'll show up late ... it's too difficult for the court to do it.
"So instead you have a hundred show up and miss a day of work" just to spend a minute or two before the judge. Realizing that "technology can really fix that problem," he and Gubernick expanded their vision for Matterhorn to letting citizens, prosecutors, police, magistrates, and judges handle a wide range of civil cases online.
Neither was a programmer, but Gubernick was graduating and "really wanted to solve problems in the world," Prescott says. So they organized the U-M Online Court Project and got two rounds of funding from the university to develop Matterhorn as what's called "socially conscious software."
Since the university didn't want to be in the software business, they founded a company, Court Innovations. And Prescott turned to the university's technology transfer office for help finding someone to run it.
The office connected them with MJ Cartwright, who had extensive experience getting startups off the ground and was successful enough to attract investors or purchasers. She helped start HealthMedia, which was bought by Johnson & Johnson; she's also been CEO of Arbor Ultrasound and president of Edington Associates, two other Ann Arbor startups.
Cartwright signed on as Court Innovations' CEO in 2014. "I have a job as a law professor," Prescott explains. "MJ has been the one actually leading the company for years now." (Gubernick also stepped back; he now practices law in California.)
Matterhorn is free for users, but courts pay an annual subscription fee based on their anticipated volume. Along with access to the software, Cartwright says, they get "reporting and dashboards for case activity and user survey information." Locally, about a third of the people using the system are under age thirty-five, and almost half connect from a mobile device.
That's the beauty of it, Prescott says: "You can do this from a smartphone on your couch. You can do it at 11 p.m. Answer the judge's questions, explain your situation--after you get your kids to bed. And when you get up to go to work the next morning, the judge might have responded, "OK, I understand your problem; let's get you onto a payment plan."
That's how it worked for "Connor" (not his real name). But first Ted Heaton, a Dawn Farm recovery support specialist, had to convince him it wasn't a trap.
Connor had been sober for a while, Heaton says, working construction and trying to get his life back on track. But persuading him to deal with an outstanding warrant for unpaid child support "took a considerable amount of time," Heaton says. "He had a physical reaction to the online system."
Connor "had a decent job. He had a willingness to pay it. He had a place to live." But, Heaton explains, once an addict is finally sober, "the last thing you want is to be thrown in jail." Even contacting the court online, "he wasn't sure the police weren't going to show up and arrest him."
It helped Heaton's credibility that he, too, is in recovery--and also paying child support. And once he finally convinced Connor to try Matterhorn, it worked just as Prescott and Gubernick had hoped: "the court got back to him with a payment plan he could do."
Heaton is convinced ODR is the future. "You go down to the courthouse, and this system that you see running there is the system from twenty years ago. There are the same bins on the wall. There are still people whose job it is to stamp things and run them up and down stairs."
As budgets get tighter, he predicts, more and more courts "will seek out ODR and alternatives" to replace defendant cattle calls and hours-long waits.
That's how Ciolek sees it, too. "When we did this pilot project, I said, 'Oh my gosh, this is great. What else can we do with this? We think this is the new way of doing business. We can free up the judges' time, and magistrates' time, and the police officers' time--[because] they don't have to come to court.
"There's no downside to it. I've often classified it as a win-win-win--for the defendant, the police department, and for the court. Everyone benefits."
Well, maybe not quite everyone. 14A District Court magistrate Elisha Fink thinks she's "working just a little harder--I have to hunt down some of the information that people [in a courtroom] provide all wrapped up in a file.
"In a courtroom, the conversation is easier. When I'm doing this by myself online, it's an extra step to find out more information ... online is a slightly more intellectual effort.
"But the main reason online is good is because it saves the defendant time. That's what matters." Using Matterhorn, Fink can take pleas and give sentences on minor offenses ranging from traffic violations to fishing without a license without requiring people to come to court.
She says one group of defendants who really benefit are those charged with driving with a suspended license. To get to court physically, they "either have to drive illegally again, or find someone to bring them to court," she points out. For them, "being able to handle your stuff online is very helpful.
"We want people to move forward," Fink says. "We don't want people taking a day off work just so we can say, 'Here is your new court date.'"
A recent help-wanted ad revealed--apparently inadvertently--that Court Innovations has been acquired by Government Brands, a privately held Georgia company. While Cartwright won't confirm the sale, she emails that Court Innovations now "has funding to scale and expand nationally and internationally as we grow with our headquarters in Ann Arbor."
Prescott is back teaching and doing research, including a handful of papers on ODR. In one, he and O'Neil write:
Jailing or fining those who are unable to pay inflates the collective price tag of the justice system and creates unnecessary, concentrated harm for particular individuals with no compensating social benefits. And if those who are improperly jailed also lose their jobs or public benefits the social cost of inaccuracy is even greater. Additionally and importantly, these errors can foster distrust and even hatred toward the justice system as a whole.By opening the door of the online courthouse, he's done his part to fix that.
The Addiction Angle
Two years ago, law prof J.J. Prescott hired predoctoral fellow Meghan O'Neil to do research in Hamtramck. "She had a background and some experience with people in treatment," he recalls. As O'Neil studied as aspect of the Matterhorn online dispute resolution software, she "got completely excited about this idea."
Now O'Neil's working with local treatment centers on a controlled study of ODR's impact on people in recovery.
"There are a lot of low-income folks who have been caught up in addiction for years and have outstanding warrants," explains O'Neil, now a research investigator at ISR. "They got a parking ticket and didn't show up or pay the fine and it became a fine with extra fees and interest, and then it spiraled into a bench warrant.
"It is intimidating for anybody to go into court," she adds. "But for someone who is drug- or alcohol-addicted, it can be even more intimidating."
With Prescott's blessing, she organized a team that did "focus groups of people seeking sobriety and staff members at the treatment centers to really understand how best to target these people in need." They won $3,000 in the U-M's Innovate Blue competition, and that "was the impetus we needed to get going and to be able to approach the courts." That in turn led to a $60,000 grant for an intervention study. They hope to roll out the Matterhorn online court software at Dawn Farm and Home of New Vision this summer.
O'Neil says she's found local judges "extremely receptive." And when they told her that "about 80 percent of their criminal docket is substance-addicted people," she also realized that "if we can isolate and resolve some of these addiction issues in our community, we can essentially, in the long game, reduce our crime rate."
That, she says, "kind of blew my mind."
This article has been edited since it was published in the August 2019 Ann Arbor Observer. Meghan O'Neil has been identified as the co-author of the academic paper quoted.
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