In January 1962, just a few months into a five-year sentence at Florida State Prison, a 51-year-old convict named Clarence Earl Gideon sat down with a pencil and a piece of prison stationery and wrote a letter to the US Supreme Court.
That letter, despite its humble origin, launched a landmark Supreme Court case that still resounds across the landscape of justice in the US. Thanks to the Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, the right of criminal defendants to receive free public defense has been taken for granted by US citizens since 1963.
Recently, however, an Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) for a state in the southeastern US saw what it will take for today’s courts to continue making good on the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright.
By working with IBM Business Partner Prolifics and applying IBM automation technology, the AOC transformed overburdened administrative processes and brought critical efficiencies to its public defense system.
The AOC’s story illustrates how automating processes can dramatically accelerate work, and also how modern justice systems will depend on the latest technology to protect a core Constitutional right: justice for all.
The growing caseload includes 135,000 claims public-defense claims per year
Automation accelerates claims processing by at least 77% from 45+ days per claim to 10 days or less
When Matt Garst, Head of North America Sales at Prolifics, recently engaged the southeastern state’s AOC to see how he could help it boost efficiency, he wasn’t thinking of Clarence Gideon. But Gideon was, at least in part, the reason that the AOC wanted to speak to Garst.
When Gideon sent that pencil-written appeal to the Supreme Court in 1962, he’d been convicted of breaking into a pool hall in Panama City, Florida, and stealing beer, wine and $5 in change. When he’d first gone to trial, in 1961, he requested that the State of Florida provide him an attorney, citing his right to a fair trial under the US Constitution’s Sixth Amendment. The judge told him Florida provided free representation only in death penalty cases. Left to provide his own defense, Gideon was convicted.
The next year, however, after receiving Gideon’s appeal, the Supreme Court voted 9-0 that justice had not been served. Gideon got a new trial. This time, a state-funded defense attorney discredited prior testimony and called in a new witness. Gideon was found not guilty. And in every criminal case since — in all 50 states — defendants who cannot afford legal representation, labeled by the courts as indigent, can request and receive effective representation from the state.
Today, putting Gideon v. Wainwright into practice depends on state court programs called Indigent Defense Systems. And that is what the AOC wanted to discuss with Garst and the Prolifics team.
The AOC sought a way to alleviate overburdened processes related to indigent defense. The state has one of the top 10 fastest growing populations in the US. For its courts, that means steadily increasing caseloads and ever greater demand for public defense.
For a given case in the Indigent Defense System, providing effective, fair public representation means enlisting one or more defense attorneys and other resources, such as experts, investigators or interpreters. And it means paying these resources for their work. That is where the AOC had significant challenges.
When a public defender or another resource has done work on a case, to get paid they must submit a claim to the AOC. The AOC puts the claim through an internal process to make sure it adheres to all regulations, then submits it to the office of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which grants an approval to pay the resource.
The AOC used three separate, largely manual processes to facilitate this cycle. As Garst explains: “It was log in to one system, do one piece of work, log out, log in to another system, do another piece of work, log out of that, log in to another system ... And the underlying technology had to be maintained. Every time they had an upgrade, they had an outage. From an administrative and a technology perspective, it was a management nightmare.”
With 135,000 claims per year — and counting — these processes, and the staff whose manual work kept them moving, were struggling to keep up. “They were seeing their caseloads really ramp up,” recalls Garst. “They had more volume than they could handle. They were running into issues where people either weren’t getting paid, they’re getting paid late or they’re getting paid the wrong amount.” In fact, more than 70,000 claims were on hold due mostly to simple errors that couldn’t be resolved until administrative staff manually notified the submitters.
Beyond creating inconvenience and confusion for public defenders, the problems put the entire Indigent Defense System at risk. As Garst explains: “Every state agency gets audited two or three times a year. If the comptroller’s office finds any violations, they can shut you down. Imagine the Administrative Office of the Courts being shut down, how that would go in the media. So public perception is a serious concern, and this has visibility all the way up to the governor’s office.”
The AOC knew it needed to replace its manual tasks and disjointed processes with a unified, automated system. It needed to both accelerate claims processing and provide complete traceability for reporting purposes. It consulted several solution providers in addition to Prolifics, including some of the largest global professional services players. “We were competing with companies a thousand times our size,” says Garst. “Our advantage was, we’re large enough to scale but we’re small enough to be agile.” For the AOC, that was the winning combination. One of the larger bidders estimated three to five years for a solution. Garst and the Prolifics team pledged to have a solution in production in less than half that time. They won the contract. Then they made good on their pledge.
Prolifics builds IT solutions. Thus, Garst and his teammates are accustomed to working with their customers’ IT departments, gaining approvals from CIOs and CTOs. The AOC project was different from the start, and the connection between two ostensibly distinct realms — IT and justice — was very clear. Instead of working with IT operations managers, Prolifics worked with lawyers. Instead of a CIO, approval needed to come from the state’s chief justice. “Every time I met with the customer,” explains Garst, “I'd walk into the room and everyone in the room was an attorney. There was a book, which was the law. And so any changes that they would want to make, anything that they wanted to do, the book would get flipped open. The entire system has been designed around the letter of the law.”
Due to the atypical nature of the engagement, collaboration was especially important. The Prolifics team needed to better understand the AOC, and the AOC needed to understand the latest that IT had to offer. As Garst explains, “We had to take everything down to the simplest level in order to let them understand what was in the realm of the possible.” A design thinking approach, with the AOC involved every step of the way, guided the collaboration and solution building through the entire process.
The first step was a three-week discovery and advisory session. “Before we started turning any screws,” says Garst, “we wanted to pop the hood and really understand the significant challenges that they were facing, understanding the as-is environment, the goals for the to-be environment.
“So there’s a lot of whiteboarding sessions. You got the key stakeholders, the power users, such as the director of the AOC, directly involved in the process of figuring out what the to-be was going to be for phase one, and they brought ideas.”
In the beginning, the AOC hoped to apply a lot of the hard coding from those three existing systems and, in Garst’s words, “bolt some new components onto it.” The Prolifics team, on the other hand, felt that a ground-up approach was necessary.
“Some of the users,” explains Garst, “have been a part of this process for 40-plus years. So they’re used to it and they’re like, ‘I just want it to do the same thing.’”
Prolifics turned the thinking around with questions like, Where do you want to go? What enhancements and features would help you operate more efficiently? What would the ideal process be? The questions elicited new ideas, which Prolifics built into a presentation of a to-be process that represented much greater efficiency and full transparency. The AOC team was on board.
In court, a verdict depends on proof. For the AOC, it was time for Prolifics to prove that it could deliver on the promises of the to-be process.
Using software components from the IBM Cloud Pak® for Automation solution and an offering from IBM Business Partner Intellective, the Prolifics team built a single integrated framework that automates the entire indigent defense claims process, from initial submission, workflow and reporting, to approval by the chief justice, and finally, payment. “We’ve streamlined so much of the process,” says Garst. “The system isn’t just single threaded. It’s automated to the point that if anything sits at any point out of the process in a queue, it’ll automatically kick over to number two, number three in order to keep the process going.”
When the comptroller’s officer initiates an audit, all details are readily available. “All the way through, the entire process is completely transparent,” says Garst. “Every step of the process, you can see who has it and where there are bottlenecks.”
Errors no longer sit waiting to be relayed to the previous step. Instant notifications let submitters and other users understand immediately if there’s any error, so they can resolve the issue in the moment, without additional intervention.
Automation even helps align the solution to that book the attorneys were always consulting. Using the rules engine component of IBM Cloud Pak for Automation, Prolifics and the AOC team created multiple workflows to drive rationality as well as efficiency and put rules in place that ensure all procedural decisions accord to state law.
And how does the new system look to the users? How friendly is it to the 40-year veterans? That’s where Unity software from Intellective comes in. “We knew we needed a very, very intuitive, easy-to-use front end,” says Garst. “We chose the Intellective Unity content navigation solution. It integrates with all Cloud Pak for Automation components and provides a very rich, customizable user interface.”
The IBM and Intellective solutions run in an internal private cloud environment hosted in a state data center to comply with state requirements for in-state residence of sensitive data.
The solution is still evolving, but the AOC has already seen major improvements. Perhaps the most important value indicator from the AOC’s point of view is the reduction in claims processing time. Garst explains: “From start to finish it was 45 to 60 days on average. Attorneys sometimes waited months to be paid. Now, with automation, we are down to 10 days or less. That’s actually less than the time allotted by the law.”
Visibility into every step of the process transforms management and reporting. “Before, when the AOC director would meet with the chief justice, she and her staff would spend countless hours in the individual systems pulling the necessary data for a full view of what was going on with the claims,” says Garst. “Now, all she has to do is open up her iPad and show them, ‘Here’s the number of cases. Here’s where they are in the approval process.’”
The solution also facilitated the first pay raise for the state’s public defenders in a decade. According to Garst, the change would have been a major challenge using the previous systems. “When you change that pay rate, you need to have an easy way to go in and change it. Also, you need to have it so it only changes the pay rate from the day the new rate was authorized, so it doesn’t go back and change it for every single claim in the system. And when you look at the volume, this is the entire state. So, it was a significant challenge.” Further, the end-to-end transparency helped the AOC meet Department of Revenue documentation requirements for transferring payments electronically. For the first time, public defense resources could get paid via Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT).
As for AOC staff, they love it. “They’re happy with the system,” relates Garst. “The most satisfying feedback is what you hear from the field. The director travels across the state, and they have multiple user groups with various attorneys. They have gotten nothing but stellar feedback over the last year.”
With proof established, the AOC’s thinking has shifted to what else might be possible. “We’re now doing enhancements,” explains Garst. “Reporting enhancements, process enhancements. We’ve created dashboards for the director. We’re now giving them the system they always dreamed of.” Some of the enhancements being explored include using AI to analyze data and feed insights back to further streamline the process. “They’re excited,” says Garst. “They say, ‘Oh, can I do this? Can I do that?’ They’ve seen what’s in the realm of the possible and now they want to push it.”
The Gideon v. Wainwright ruling affirmed that even the most humble and downtrodden among us weigh equally on the scales of justice. The AOC brings that ruling into trials taking place every day. But ensuring fair representation for indigent defendants means ensuring compensation for defenders. By paying public defense resources more, and making sure they’re paid faster, the AOC attracts more talent to the Indigent Defense System, broadening the pool of resources. This means indigent defendants have better, faster access to a fair defense. The efficiencies are a win for the courts and defenders. The results, like Gideon v. Wainwright, are a win for justice.
A global provider of IT engineering services and solutions, IBM Business Partner Prolifics works closely with customers to understand their vision and use its industry and technology expertise to accelerate that vision to market.
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