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Defending the System: Public Defenders on Tech in the Legal System

The attorneys who make up the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office have gone from lugging physical copies of casework to a digital case management system that is making a world of difference for the people they serve.

Shelving loaded with paper files.
For those involved in the criminal justice system, time is of the essence — even a matter of hours can be the difference between incarceration and freedom.

Technology has played no small part in improving these outcomes, and the public defenders who represent the people of Los Angeles will be among the first to acknowledge its impact.

During a recent panel discussion about the technology improvements within the Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office at the Los Angeles IT Leadership Forum*, attorneys shared their personal experiences moving away from a hugely paper-based process.

Noah Cox is a public defender working with around 20 clients in the neurocognitive disorder unit, which handles clients with disorders like autism and dementia. One of his more recent cases saw a client, Johnny, approved for a diversion — treatment instead of incarceration.

“I don't really care about the technology, but if the technology can help me reach that goal with every client that I'm working with, then I care a lot about the technology,” Cox said.

At the heart of his work on Johnny’s case was a new case management system that, for the first time, allowed attorneys to manage their caseloads from a digital hub and offered the ability to connect with clients with specialists and treatment providers via video. A far cry from the average 5,000 pieces of paper typical of one of the unit’s cases.

“Our system itself is starting to really understand people and the disorders and disabilities that they have that kind of connect them to the justice system,” Cox said.

Melissa Mammenga, a public defender and field supervisor with the office’s juvenile unit, echoed sentiments about technology streamlining their work. In her case, connecting clients in crisis to potentially lifesaving rehabilitation resources held the real value of the streamlined system. Filing lengthy Word documents and waiting for help to arrive was now a thing of the past.

In addition, the case management system gives public defenders access to a client’s complete history, not just the parts their family wants to share, Mammenga said.

“The technology has really sped up our connectivity within the office and has sped up our ability to serve as a community,” she said.

While the impacts of the improved case management system are evident, panelists were quick to point out that getting there was an uphill battle on the people side of the transition. Ryan Wolfe, a public defender on the training team, admitted that attorneys are slow — even openly opposed — to giving up their paper files.

This changed, Wolfe said, when the team began reframing the conversation from the new features to a more contextualized vision of how the system would improve the lives of their clients.

“And so, even if technology makes us five minutes quicker, to get to a conversation that much quicker, it has this like really transformative effect on people where margins are very thin and small and make major differences,” Cox said.

* The Los Angeles IT Leadership Forum is hosted by Government Technology, Industry Insider — California's sister publication. Both are a part of e.Republic.
Eyragon is the Managing Editor for Industry Insider — California. He previously served as the Daily News Editor for Government Technology. He lives in Sacramento, Calif.