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Wired N.Y.C. Court Dispenses Justice At Click of a Mouse

Judge Rosalyn Richter looks inquisitively at the computer screen before her. It displays much about Peter, a heroin addict sentenced to drug treatment after being arrested for stealing at a Macy's department store. With a click of the mouse, she calls up his drug-rehabilitation attendance report. A red beaker icon shows he tested positive for heroin again.

But another click on the "employment/support" quadrant shows he's been a limo driver on and off. She decides to give him a second chance. But next time, she warns, he'll go to jail.

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At the Midtown Community Court, the nation's first entirely wired courtroom, computers link judges, social workers, police, and lawyers. The court, located in New York City's Times Square, opened in 1993 to target "low-level offenders," such as those arrested for petty theft. Under one roof, it offers all the services they may need, from drug counseling to health classes.

The court is a bold - and controversial - experiment in silicon justice. It shows how technology can help reduce the backlog of court cases by trying or treating offenders swiftly. It is providing more precise, personalized decisions in a justice system that has become a revolving door of nameless, docket-numbered cases.

"This court is, by itself, leading the way to the use of information and technology," says John Goldkamp, a criminal justice professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. "The timely gathering, sharing, and processing of information is at the heart of all the problems we have in the courtroom: It's the failure of the information to travel fast that makes for most of the cases we see in the newspapers. This court will serve as a model for many other courts."

Many players, many details

While computers are used by judges in Miami, for example, to monitor people in drug programs, they have never been used to give as many players access to so many details, says David Rottman of the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., which is evaluating the project.

In an ordinary court, Peter probably would have spent a night in jail. The next day, the judge, knowing little about his past or current activities, would probably dismiss him for "time-served."

But with the computer system, the judge can easily draw upon all the information provided by a variety of sources, including the defendant, who has been quizzed before hand about his health, drug use, housing, and job status. The judge makes better informed decisions and can track its successes and failures.

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"Where does that person fit in the continuum of society? It's all right there on the screen, and everybody's looking at the same screen," Judge Richter says. "It makes me much more willing to take some chances on people - I know these people are not going to get lost in some file cabinet with 1,500 other people."

At Midtown Community Court, an offender can be arrested, arraigned, and complete six hours of community service in 24 hours. Too often, delays in the traditional court allowed offenders to skip their obligations, officials say. With this system, more than 75 percent of people finish their community service, as opposed to 4 out of 10 in the traditional court, they say.

"The court has to be the ear and eyes of the community," says John Feinblatt, who runs the midtown court. "You can't ask judges to sentence people to community service and ask a community to accept the offender back on the street unless you know the person did their sentence. We call that plain accountability."

Too soft on crime?

But critics charge that the new court and its sophisticated technology is an expensive luxury that is diverting energy and resources from Manhattan's main criminal court without producing tangible results of success. They say the technology is rarely used and most of the data has to be backed up with paper documents.

"If you can see on the screen that somebody's got a lengthy criminal record and you give him community service, that's evidence right there you're not using the information," says Robert Holmes, an assistant to Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, one of the most vocal critics of the midtown court.

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