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Stories Added - January 2011
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Officials debate sheriff’s software change at commissioners court
BY VALERIE REDDELL
LIVINGSTON — After enduring a political pistol-whipping from fellow county officials during Tuesday’s session of Commissioner’s Court, Sheriff Kenneth Hammack ultimately got approval from county commissioners to move forward with a pilot records management program to be funded through a state criminal justice grant. Hammack reported he had been working to address computer software problems in his department since he took office in 2005. The Net Data software is difficult to navigate and investigators are finding some data searches are impossible to do, according to Hammack. “So much of what happens at the courthouse starts in the jail and continuity of information is the hurdle we’ve been talking about,” County Judge John Thompson said. Thompson said he has been working to find a method to digitally transfer the existing files in the county’s Personal Identification Database (PID) from the Net Data system to Southern Software. Despite many attempts, Thompson said he has not been able to get a cost estimate for that initial transfer and ongoing translation between the two systems. One translation service, County Connect, recently signed a contract for a similar deal with Galveston that was $30,000, Thompson said. “I think we are trying to make this work,” Thompson said. “We are trying to make sure when we make one step forward we don’t take two steps back.” Data entered about criminal cases when the offense is first reported can be transferred to other offices such as the four Justices of the Peace, County Court at Law, County Clerk, District Attorney and District Clerk. That information sharing improves efficiency and prevents typographical errors from re-entering data. District Clerk Kathy Clifton and District Attorney Lee Hon both expressed concerns during the meeting that a software change at the sheriff’s department would mean they didn’t have access to jail information when the cases progress to their offices. “There’s 132,000 PID files,” Clifton said. “We don’t want to have to double enter data to keep up with those. That’s the reason we’re going to have to depend on somebody who knows something about this.” Clifton added that when information on case dispositions is transmitted to the state, they return information that “overlays” the original information and corrects mistakes in identifying information. Scott Wright, the information technology and communications supervisor for the sheriff’s department, said the information also comes back to Polk Co. Sheriff’s Office from Texas Department of Public Safety. “We really need a representative from CJIS (Criminal Justice Information Service) to explain all that,” Clifton responded. Hammack assured the court prosecutors and other offices involved with the criminal justice system will continue to have access to the information, even if his personnel have to double-enter information on the Net Data system until a permanent solution is found. “But we can load the client package on their computer and they can see what they need to see,” Hammack said. “It’s not going to be hidden. It will be available no different than what we have now.” In response to a question about staff members having to run both systems, Wright said both systems can be open and running at the same time. “In fact it’s a better investigative tool for the D.A.’s side,” Wright said. “As long as me and Steve Hullihen (IT director for the county) are on the same page things will work out. There’s going to be hiccups in the road — there has been before and we’ve overcome them. District Attorney Lee Hon said he’s leery of the potential impact of the software change. “My concern is does the court understand what’s really at issue? The jail is the bell cow for the flow of information that goes to all these departments,” Hon said. “We use their information daily. We’ve got to have information to set up a file. Investigators use it routinely for book-in photos, things of that nature.” Hon added that his office needs to be able to track other pending cases when a defendant is negotiating a plea agreement. Also, when drafting a judgment, prosecutors need to know how much time the defendant has already spent in jail. “It’s not uncommon for people to have three, four or five cases,” Hon said. “If there are hiccups down the road that block us from getting that information, know that it will impact the flow of justice.” County Court at Law Judge Stephen Phillips advised that the county does not need to leave this grant on the table. Phillips chairs the county’s technology committee, although he said his opinions were not those of the committee since they had not discussed the matter. “The sheriff needs to move forward and he has committed to take care of the data flow downstream, but we should not walk away from this meeting thinking that double-entry is a solution. We need to move collectively to a digital system,” Phillips said. Pct. 1 Justice of the Peace Darrell Longino offered another potential long-term solution to the data flow quandry. “It’s vital to the county to keep this flow of information going. With technology fund money the JPs have in reserve, if we can get the price tag around the $30,000 mark we can pay for it. If other departments benefit from the money spent from the JP technology fund it’s a benefit for them,” Longino said. “I think you’ll get us all to agree to one-fourth of that initial payment.” Thompson voiced his concern about funding future software maintenance after the pilot project is over. “To the extent we can use the JP tech fund, that’s a great idea. I am expecting that next year’s budget is not going to be any more fun than last year. I don’t see us having any more money. In fact, what the state typically does when they don’t have money to do a program, they let the counties and cities do them and figure out a way to pay for them,” Thompson said. Prior to seeking out the pilot project, Hammack said he had tried other options to solve the software issues. “I asked for changes and Tory Humphries, president of Net Data, said it couldn’t be done for security reasons,” Hammack said. Later the company partnered with Global Software for a computer aided dispatch (CAD) system, which costs $195,000. When the sheriff’s department could not get software upgrades, Hammack started looking for other avenues to secure funds for an improved system. One of those avenues was serving on the technology committee for the Sheriff’s Association of Texas. They went to Gov. Rick Perry’s office for grant funds for a 50-county pilot project to provide software for sheriff’s departments that had no software at all or small departments that could not purchase adequate software. The project includes the 15 counties on the Texas- Mexico border, Hammack said. Three other Deep East Texas counties — Houston, Trinity and San Augustine — were approved, but Houston County has since purchased software they’re satisfied with, Hammack said. “San Jacinto County just went with Justice Solutions, a software leasing program, that’s probably the way to go for a small county,” Hammack said. Three software providers submitted proposals to participate in the pilot program — eJustice, eForce and Southern Software — and they were rated by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Hammack said he preferred Southern Software’s basic package which includes a records management system, CAD and jail records management. The company also offers a mapping and mobile cad system which would cost extra. Annual maintenance fees for the Southern Software is $21,000, the sheriff’s department currently spends about $15,000 to maintain the Net Data program. Annual maintenance for the other two programs are $62,000 to $63,000. Hammack and Wright told the court they have about two weeks to decide whether they want to participate in the pilot program. New software systems have to be installed within 90 days, according to grant specifications. “It sounds like the sheriff is on a time line,” Pct. 1 Commissioner Bob Willis said. “We’re not making much progress on getting those two companies together. If he’s found funding and agreed to double-enter the information we ought to give him the goahead and look for some sort of digital companies to move the information. If we shut him down we risk losing the grant program.” “When we get to budget meetings in June, which one of y’all is going to give the money up?” Thompson asked. “The sheriff is going to make it with the new jail,” Pct. 3 Commissioner Milt Purvis said, referring to anticipated revenues from offering contract jail space to other agencies. Pct. 4 Commissioner Tommy Overstreet made a motion to move forward with the grant with the understanding that the county would not fund an “astronomical” amount for the digital transfer. “We’ll work on details, but it’s important for everyone to understand that there could be unintended consequences,” Thompson said. “Mr. Wright makes a point too — there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Overstreet said. Overstreet’s motion passed unanimously.