Luzerne County plans to end hand-writing of criminal court disposition sheets

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | September 22nd, 2016 5:15 pm

Luzerne County is one of a few governments across the country still using less efficient handwritten criminal court disposition sheets, but county Court Administrator Michael Shucosky said Thursday that may change.

Disposition sheets summarize the outcome of criminal court proceedings and the time and date of the next court hearing in each case.

Court officials have come up with a plan to take over and computerize disposition processing, which is currently handled by the Clerk of Courts criminal records office, which reports to the county administration instead of the courts.

The new plan calls for the creation of three new court-branch administrative trial specialist positions, which have been advertised at $27,000. Shucosky said the court has enough savings from delays filling vacant positions to fund these salaries through the end of this year, and the court’s 2017 budget request will seek additional funding to cover the positions next year.

The council approves the budget, which must be publicly presented next month.

Under the current system, clerk of courts’ employees sit through criminal court proceedings and write out disposition sheets that are then manually entered into several required criminal justice databases, resulting in duplication, he said.

Handwriting can be more difficult to read, particularly when clerks use abbreviations or shorthand, Shucosky said.

“That’s what we’re trying to fix. Sometimes it’s not clear, and this information has to be universally understood,” he said.

The new trial specialists would be trained to quickly enter the disposition information into a courtroom computer and instantly transmit it to all databases. Computerized templates would reduce the data that must be entered and speed up completion of each disposition, he said.

Disposition sheets also would be printed out before the accused leave the courtroom so they can’t deny knowledge of the next proceeding he said.

County judges must regularly issue warrants for defendants who fail to appear at court proceedings, and offenders often claim they never received notice, Shucosky said.

Court of Common Pleas Judge Michael T. Vough recently accepted 78 guilty pleas over two days that were all transcribed by hand, slowing down processing, Shucosky said.

A recent county report said the clerk of courts office prepared 792 disposition sheets in August.

“As everyone agrees, any delay in court proceedings ends up in the long run costing more money to taxpayers,” Shucosky said.

The clerk of courts office wasn’t tapped to handle the computerized filing because staffing shortages in that office have resulted in record processing backlogs, he said. The trial specialists also would handle other duties to move cases along faster, he said.

During an August county council meeting, county Manager C. David Pedri said he believes Luzerne is one of only two counties in the state still preparing dispositions by hand. The change sought by the court would free up clerk of courts employees for other pressing duties, including record scanning and assisting customers, Pedri told the council.

The county’s five-year outside financial recovery plan released a year ago also flagged the need for courtroom technology upgrades, including electronic processing of disposition sheets.

County Judicial Services and Records Division Head Joan Hoggarth, who oversees clerk of courts, said three office employees — sometimes four — spend most of their shifts in court or preparing for court. At times the office has been forced to pay overtime to catch up on record filing, she said.


By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.