Locking up paperwork costs

Jail administrators drowning in paper and inefficient paper-based processes now turn to online storage.
Written by Jeff Moad, Contributor

Until recently, bad guys weren't the only prisoners at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility. Everyone responsible for running the 1,700-inmate facility on New York's Long Island—from the sheriff to each clerk and deputy—was captive to an antiquated, paper-based inmate tracking system that every day trashed productivity and drove operating costs higher.

The problem: Like most parts of the legal system, the Suffolk County jail was required to maintain copies of inmate records for several years, even after release. But Sheriff Patrick Mahoney and his staff couldn't replace the paper documents with easier-to-handle digital images because, under New York state law, digital images did not carry the same legal status as original paper documents.

So the paper piled up. Folders for each inmate with as many as 70 pages each. Log books recording each time a prisoner entered or exited a secure wing in the jail. Detention logs and fingerprint files. They all had to be stored on paper. Altogether, the documents filled more than 1,000 large boxes in seven county locations. Not only was it expensive to store—the jailhouse paid the county a fee to rent off-site storage space for the boxes of files—it was hard to retrieve. Each time an attorney or other official asked for a document, clerks had to begin a search process that could take hours or days.

"We generate tons of paperwork, and the way we were storing and retrieving it just wasn't effective," said Lynn Clarke, a sergeant in the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department, in Riverhead, N.Y.

That changed last June, however, when the state of New York passed legislation making certified reproductions of digitized images as legally valid as the originals. With that, officials at the correctional facility accelerated plans to digitize most of the paper documents in their care; make them available over a secure intranet; and destroy reams of stored, but inactive, paper files.

With deployment of the new digital document management system this spring, inmates' attorneys and jail, court and other legal-system officials can now electronically search for and access, in seconds, documents that previously took hours to see. And the county is saving on storage costs.

While the Suffolk County jail is progressive when it comes to moving into the Electronic Age, it certainly isn't the only institution doing away with clumsy and inefficient paper-based processes in favor of Web-enabled digital imaging technologies. Last month, the federal government joined state governments such as New York's in recognizing greater legal status for certified digital documents, images and signatures.

That has already started to open the gates for more public agencies and private enterprises to turn to Web-based digital imaging technologies for storing and retrieving previously paper-based public records.

"It hasn't been a question of the technology becoming available. That's been out there and proven for some time," said Larry Hawes, an analyst at The Delphi Group, in Boston. "But with the laws in place, projects like these will really begin to speed up."

False starts

The Suffolk County correctional Facility's attempts to shrink its expensive paper pile began long before digital documents gained legal status. In 1994, the Sheriff's Department started printing and storing microfilm images of its paper documents. Although microfilming relieved some of the jail's document storage problems, it introduced new problems. Not only is the retrieval of microfilmed documents difficult and time-consuming, but filming the documents took too much time and too many people, Clarke said.

So the department, in the fall of 1998, began pilot testing technology that could be used to scan documents, index them, search for them and retrieve them electronically. After a public bid, the jail replaced its microfilming equipment with Canofile for Windows, a client/server-based digital image management system from Canon USA Inc., of Lake Success, N.Y. Using the Canon software, two scanning stations, a Windows NT server and a CD jukebox, Clarke's team began scanning existing paper documents and indexing them for retrieval.

Although, at least initially, the department still had to store paper documents, the system allowed for almost instant search and retrieval of digitized documents and also allowed information on digital documents to be more closely integrated with information in Mapper, a proprietary text-based management system used inside the jail.

But that cost is negligible considering the return on investment. Earlier this year, Clarke's team made it easier for users to access digital documents by providing intranet access to the system. Acting as a beta site for Canon, the jail installed Imageware Document Manager, the Web-based successor to Canofile for Windows that will be released in October.

Imageware allows Sheriff's Department supervisors who are on the department's intranet to access digital documents from a browser. Besides supervisors, inmates' attorneys can access documents from a visiting area that is equipped with a workstation tied to the intranet. Security is provided via password protection.

Don't destroy the evidence

Following the new york state legislature's decision to elevate the legal status of digital documents, the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department began destroying inactive paper documents that had been scanned into the new jail digital imaging system. So far, about 300 out of more than 1,000 boxes of documents have been destroyed.

Before destroying paper documents, however, jail officials made sure that no records would be lost. Besides storing images of digital documents on CDs on-site, Clarke's team burns backup CDs and stores them off-site.

Next on Clarke's agenda is to scan into the system active documents, not just inactive documents related, for example, to inmates who have been discharged. Clerks will scan documents into the system and index them as soon as they are filled out. But first, Clarke said, more scanners will have to be purchased and installed, and security will have to be beefed up.

That shouldn't be a big problem, however. After all, officials at the correctional facility already know a thing or two about security.

Sending paper to the slammer

Organization Suffolk County (N.Y.) Correctional Facility

Problem Jail administrators were drowning in paper and inefficient paper-based processes. Because state law required all documents about inmates to be stored in paper form for 10 to 15 years, the institution was unable to phase out paper in favor of digital images.

Solution Last summer, after the state of New York approved new laws making digital images as binding for legal purposes as paper, the jail accelerated deployment of an intranet-accessible digital image storage and retrieval system.

Result The jail has been able to reduce storage costs—destroying some 300 boxes of paper documents—and cut the time it takes to access documents from hours to seconds.

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