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Sonoma County’s new criminal court system an odyssey for attorneys

The 54-year-old Santa Rosa man was trying to get his life on track when he asked police for help retrieving his belongings from a bad living situation.

Instead, he was jailed after officers plugged his name into their computers and found a warrant for his arrest.

Trouble is, the warrant had been lifted a day earlier by a judge. But the action had yet to be reflected in Sonoma County Superior Court’s new $2.6 million computer software system.

“He was put in handcuffs and thrown in the back of a police car, all on a mistake of the new case management system,” Kathleen Pozzi, Sonoma County’s public defender, said Tuesday. “Who wants to go to jail when they’re not deserving to do so?”

The controversial Odyssey system, meant to usher the court into the paperless age, is hitting a few snags since its debut last month in the criminal division. It’s the same system created by Texas-based Tyler Technologies that was sharply criticized when it was launched last year in Alameda County criminal courts.

Sonoma County clerks charged with using it to input rulings and other proceedings are unable to keep pace in busy courtrooms. It’s led to a delay in updating information attorneys say is affecting as many as 3,000 cases.

The concern is people are being wrongfully imprisoned or held beyond release dates, and the lag time could allow some wanted people to remain free.

Realizing the potential for mishaps, jail employees are working overtime during the transition period to record court minutes on paper and transfer the information into an existing system.

Court officials also are scrambling to close gaps on what was envisioned as an improvement. Gary Nadler, Sonoma County’s acting presiding judge, said he has no regrets but conceded there have been challenges.

“Those challenges are to be expected,” Nadler said. “They are getting resolved. We fully anticipate they will be gone shortly.”

Other criminal justice leaders said the flaws are proving greater than expected.

District Attorney Jill Ravitch said the hang--up in reporting what happens in court makes it difficult to advise the public — including crime victims — about what is happening in cases.

“Justice is being delayed because of the change in case management systems,” she said.

In several recent drunken-driving prosecutions, defendants who arrived in court were told to go home and return on other dates because formal charges were not yet in the system, Ravitchshe said.

Another case involving a person who failed to appear on domestic-violence charges, she said, was inexplicably dropped from the calendar.

Whether a future lapse could jeopardize pubic safety, Ravitch could not say. “We need that constant flow of information to know what’s happening with the offender population,” she said.

So far, jail officials said, they’ve had no instances where inmates were held in jail past releases dates or let out too soon.

Randall Walker, assistant sheriff for detention, said clerical staff are putting in extra hours to transcribe court proceedings and calculate custody time.

“It’s definitely difficult for the staff,” Walker said. “We’re hoping once it is implemented it will perform well. It’s too early to say if that is going to be the case.”

The new Odyssey system was launched in two parts starting with civil and family cases earlier this year. The criminal side was added in August. The system allows users to search files online. Users have noted some omissions; for example, the new site does not contain a daily calendar of criminal cases. Also, information about defendants, such as their birth dates, has been omitted from the new system.

Court officials say they are reviewing the system to determine what, if any changes, need to be made.

The system could get a boost with the hiring of a new court executive officer, Arlene Junior, who starts in October. Junior, a manager in the civil division of Alameda County courts, oversaw the rollout of Odyssey in Tarrant County, Texas.

She said Tuesday she would apply her expertise with the system, and her contacts with the software manufacturers, toward solving any problems that arise.

Meanwhile, defense attorneys say their clients continue to suffer. Pozzi said the recent lag in recording court orders to transfer a 35-year-old Petaluma drug addict to a residential treatment program caused her to miss an open bed. She languished in jail for days before she could be moved.

Others are being freed by judges only to wait around for the word to trickle down to jail staff, she said.

“Until they get the power or ability to enter these minutes electronically, it’s going to be a problem,” Pozzishe said.