Outstanding traffic warrants piling up
|||Special Project: Justice on Hold|
By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Jim Dooley
About 6,500 arrest warrants issued by O'ahu traffic court judges since November are still stuck inside the Judiciary's new computer system and none of them will be available for service for another two weeks and possibly longer.
It's not known how many individuals have avoided arrest given the problem, because some traffic offenders are wanted on more than one warrant. But among the offenders are thousands of drivers who ignored court hearings in minor criminal traffic cases held during the past five months.
That's not the only problem with the new computer system, state courts spokeswoman Marsha Kitagawa acknowledged Friday.
It has cost the courts an estimated $1 million in overtime pay statewide as employees struggled over the past year to learn and operate the new system, she said.
And JIMS — which stands for Judiciary Information Management System — still can't work with a Mainland debt collection agency that has been waiting for nearly a year to begin collecting more than $5 million in unpaid Hawai'i parking citations and other fines.
The warrants problem arose because the Judiciary failed to obtain a necessary change in state law before JIMS went into service in November. The change would allow the system to electronically imprint judges' signatures and court seals on arrest warrants.
A bill for the law change is now pending at the Legislature, but in the meantime, all bench warrants ordered by O'ahu traffic court judges since November must be produced the old-fashioned way — printed out, then individually signed by judges and imprinted with court seals by Judiciary clerks.
The process is very time-consuming and the courts couldn't make a self-imposed deadline of mid-April to deliver the first large batch of JIMS arrest warrants to the state Sheriff Division, which is responsible for serving traffic warrants on O'ahu, Kitagawa said.
"We hope to deliver them in two weeks," she said.
STACKED UP SINCE 1980S
Exactly how many warrants will be delivered or how many are outstanding isn't precisely known. O'ahu traffic court judges order more than 1,000 arrest warrants each month. Kitagawa said 3,900 warrants were in the JIMS computer at the end of January, bringing the total now to approximately 6,500. Only the November and December JIMS warrants would be in the first batch delivered to the sheriffs, according to Kitagawa.
When finally delivered, the JIMS warrants will add to a pre-existing backlog of unserved traffic warrants held by the Sheriff Division totaling nearly 47,000 in January.
As reported by The Advertiser in February, the sheriffs don't have the personnel to serve the outstanding warrants, some of which date back to the early 1980s.
State Attorney General Mark Bennett called for a task force to find a permanent solution to the warrants backlog. A resolution to that effect is pending at the Legislature.
Honolulu police also hold a large number of unserved criminal arrest warrants, although most are for minor offenses, because police concentrate their efforts on serving warrants on individuals accused of serious crimes. In January, the courts delivered a new batch of 4,226 criminal warrants to HPD, department spokeswoman Michelle Yu said.
HPD served 443 and 474 criminal warrants in January and February, respectively, Yu said. Another 450 were to be served in March, she said.
In the wake of The Advertiser's reports on backlogged warrants, "up-to-date warrant information is now e-mailed to each (HPD) district for dissemination," said Yu. "Also, commendation letters are being given to patrol officers who regularly make warrant arrests."
Installation of JIMS has meant more work for Judiciary personnel who have to learn the new system, Kitagawa acknowledged.
On the Neighbor Islands, JIMS-related overtime costs from March 2005, when training began, through last month totaled $253,000, she said. O'ahu figures were only available for July 2005 through last month and amounted to $712,000. Figures from March to July of last year weren't immediately available, she said.
The Judiciary also incurred substantial overtime bills under the old computer system, but those numbers also weren't available for comparison.
Milton Hee, a former state courts official brought out of retirement in 2001 to help plan and implement the JIMS system, said in a recent interview that court personnel dealing with the new system "had to change the way they've been doing business for the past 30 years."
Hee said that before JIMS was installed, the court had no standard procedure on how computer data was entered. "Each court, each clerk had a different style and used different terminologies," he said.
Asked about the issues with JIMS, Hee said the state bought a packaged information management system from a Mainland vendor that has worked elsewhere in the country. The state had to adapt its very complex court records system — "unlike anything else in the country" — to fit within the standardized formats of JIMS, he said.
"Changing government is hard," he said. "It's just very hard to change the culture."
Hee worked for four years as JIMS project manager before giving up the position at the end of last year.
FINES GOING UNPAID
The parking fines collection contract has been on hold since it was awarded in June 2005 to Texas-based Gila Corp. In addition to parking fines, the contract covers collection of unpaid fines for noncriminal traffic infractions such as speeding, driving without a safety belt or driving with an expired safety sticker.
If the fines aren't paid within 90 days, the accounts are supposed to be sent to Gila for collection. The company, which does business under the name of Municipal Services Bureau, gets to keep 17.5 percent of whatever it collects.
But that won't happen for another six months or so, Kitagawa said. Until then, the company is not being paid.
Once the computer connection to Gila is operational, allowing exchange of data between the collection agency and the Judiciary, the courts expect "a significant increase in the amount of monies collected in delinquent fines, fees, and other financial obligations owed to the state," Kitagawa said.
Gila officials had no comment other than to say that initial test-runs of data transfers have been successful.
In January 2004, when the contract was first put out to bid, the Judiciary said there were about 27,000 delinquent accounts worth $3.75 million. Every year, some 4,000 new delinquent accounts worth $1 million can be referred to the contractor, so the amount will have easily reached over $5 million by today.
When the contract was bid out, the Judiciary said it did not know how old the 27,000 delinquent accounts were, nor the average size of a delinquent account and how many were owed by resident or out-of-state debtors.
Reach Jim Dooley at firstname.lastname@example.org.