By Dominic Fracassa, San Francisco Chronicle
California court officials are on a mission to pull the technology underpinning their operations into the 21st century.
This month, state Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye is expected to weigh in on a series of recommendations to enhance the public’s access to the court system and reducing costs.
The modernization proposals, which include expanding the use of video technology and developing chatbots that can help answer routine questions for people called for jury duty, were developed over nine months by a team spearheaded by San Diego Superior Court Judge Robert Trentacosta.
Trentacosta recently spoke with The Chronicle about his group’s findings. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Q: How would you characterize your goal for creating these technology recommendations, and how did your group go about its fact-finding mission?
A: The goal was to use technology for better service and access to the public, and, internally, perhaps more efficiencies for all concerned. We were hopeful to have a court system that would be easier to use, less costly, more efficient and with increased security. One of the things that we were able to do was to meet with the subject-matter experts. And we were fortunate here in California to have the Silicon Valley companies who were willing to meet with us to talk about where technology is now, and where technology will be in the near future.
We set up meetings with various companies that included some very big names like Microsoft and Google and Cisco, just to name a few. And we met with them sometimes for hours, sometimes for days, and we asked them from a technology standpoint, what might be available to help our court users and our court staff now.
Q: Did you and your team have a sense of what the court system’s biggest pain points were going into the process, or did those present themselves as they went along?
A: I think there was a general concern that, you know, litigation is complicated. It can be expensive. It can be really difficult, particularly for self-represented litigants. And by virtue of these difficulties, there was a certain lack of access to justice.
That was especially pronounced, for instance, in family law, where some courts report 70 percent or more of one side or the other was self-represented. And obviously you are dealing with significant issues — custody and visitation and support. How can we make life better and easier, at least make the people feel like they understand what’s going on and that they are being treated fairly? That was absolutely a concern.
Q: How much friction in the court system is currently created by language barriers?
A: Obviously, as a judge, you want everybody in the courtroom to understand what is going on. And so in California, we have so many languages that are spoken here, that sometimes you cannot get an interpreter for those languages. And the case has to be continued. So we were trying to think of a way that technology could help. So they were able to come up with some terrific ideas. We are increasingly getting some languages that are not so common. And the availability of an interpreter is scarce. And one of the ways that we have found that we might use technology is essentially video remote interpretation, where an interpreter can be at their office (able to speak) a language, for instance, that perhaps is not readily available in the locale. When it comes to efficiency — we aren’t paying them for a half day or full day. So everybody saves money.
Q: One of the recommendations was to implement a chatbot to help streamline routine court filings and other matters. Los Angeles County is already using one of those successfully. Can you tell me more about that?
A: I can give you an example: You have questions about jury service. We have live people standing by who answer the phone, and who answer a lot of the same repetitive questions. There is a universe of questions that are really frequently asked. So they could create an intelligent chatbot where you could go online and virtually the universe of questions about jury service could be answered, and there would be lots of information and you’d know that you were talking to an intelligent chat technology, but it would free up court staff to do other things. So if somebody literally could not get their questions answered, there would still be a phone number and they could talk to somebody.
Q: Are you at all concerned about robots taking away your job someday?
A: I’m not. I think there are some things that machines can do and there are other things that I think it is much better to have a human do. But having a human act as a machine and essentially repeat the same actions over and over again is wasteful.
Q: Apart from costs, what are the biggest barriers you foresee toward implementing some of these recommendations?
A: Well, I think that there needs to be a change of culture. We have not had the benefit of this technology, and we are used to doing things the way we do them. And I think once people get acquainted with the technology and feel comfortable using it, that they are properly trained, I think the response is going to be “this is great!”
Q: How do you decide where and when some of these recommendations will be tested?
A: That’s for the chief (justice) to decide. I suspect that what is going to happen is once she makes a decision about which of these things go forward, because that is clearly her prerogative. But once those decisions are made, I think the (adoption by individual courts) will be on a voluntary basis. I think what we would love to do is for the pilot projects to test them in each of those environments — the small, medium and large courts and see what works for each, and then adjust accordingly.
Q: How much do you think the Legislature will have to approve for some of these things? And how much can be shifted around in the court’s existing budget?
A: I can’t give you a percentage about how much is going to be done one way or another. But we’ve gotten clear direction from the governor and the legislators that they appreciate that the third branch of government needs to be modernized — that technology is clearly necessary and appropriate. We are going to do pilot projects, sort of as an additional layer of security, to make sure that the money is well-spent. And it seems to me that that is a very reasonable way to proceed.
Proposals to modernize court technology:
- Develop a pilot project for more remote appearances for most noncriminal court proceedings
- Authorize more video arraignments
- Develop a pilot project for self-help chatbots
- Develop a pilot project for voice-to-text interpretation services
- Establish an innovation lab to identify emerging technologies
- Implement a pilot project for comprehensive digital recording for official court services that don’t require a court reporter
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