Working in the records department of a court is a critical position. As a clerk or records manager, you’re responsible for organizing, having available, and providing critical historical records and active documents that contain data related to case files and criminal justice information. Regardless if the data is on paper documents, microfilm and microfiche, or already exists as digital records, the information contained on the records is the reference for justice information.
If you’re like the majority of court offices across the country, you still have hard copy files. There’s nothing wrong with this, and it’s likely that there won’t ever be a truly “paperless” organization. Even so, are you interested in digitizing and converting your documents so that you can alleviate some of the physical handling and hassle? We’ll give you some information about the general benefits of digitizing court records, an overview of the digitization process, and services available for scanning court records.
Benefits Of Digitizing Court Records
The number and magnitude of the benefits you reap from converting your hard copy records to an electronic format will vary based on multiple factors, but we can think of two that are consistent for all. The first is that you don’t have to deal with the hard copies anymore. The second is that the records you use will be accessible more quickly and more simply. If your court gets another five great benefits from digitizing, or this is it, these are at a minimum two solid reasons to move from physical documents to digital records.
What are the advantages of digitizing court records?
This section can theoretically be endless, because every court could have a different advantage they gain by scanning their documents. Paring it down to the two we mentioned above (no hard copies; simple and efficient access) plus a couple more, we think we can give you a good idea of why it’s a smart move to go digital.
1. No more hard copy records
In reality, hard copy records will probably never go away, but digitizing as much as you can is a good move. Oftentimes a small percentage of documents will be accessed most frequently, so targeting the most used records will alleviate the hassle of physical handling. If you keep the records in hard copy, they’ll get more use as time goes on and can wear down or get lost, and losing an only copy of a critical document can be troublesome.
Also, you may have closets or rooms full of records that are just taking up space that can be used for other purposes, and even though you’re not using the records often (or at all), they have to be kept for retention purposes. This is a great reason to scan the records and not have to deal with the hard copies anymore.
2. Increase efficiency and accessibility
You might have a red-hot process in place to store records, find files, and distribute them quickly and cleanly, but if you put this process side-by-side with a digital method, digital will win out.
Imagine a contest where one person (Team A) is using the current method of hard copy retrieval and another person (Team B) is using the same information but in a digital format. A request for a particular file comes in and … GO!
Team A has to leave their desk to go to wherever the records are stored – we’ll say a cabinet across the room. If the cabinet’s labeled, they can drill down to the section where the file should be, then finger through the records until the correct file is found. Now back to their desk to make a scan or copy of the file to send to the person that needs it. Once this is all done, they have to get back up to replace the file in the cabinet.
Team B has to open up their electronic records application, type in the record name (a case file # or other identifier), open the file, and either print a copy or send it digitally, then close the application and get back to work. Done.
Which sounds better to you?
3. More effective staff
This is directly tied in with the part above about increasing efficiency and accessibility – if your staff is spending less time searching for, locating, handling, and re-filing hard copy records, they’ll have more time to do their primary job. This improves the effectiveness of your staff and keeps them from wasting time on tasks that can be minimized or eliminated.
4. More secure records
When you have physical records, how securely are they stored? Most likely, they’re in boxes in a storage room or maybe in some cabinets throughout your office. If they’re criminal records, are they stored and handled following the CJIS Security Policy? If they’re not criminal records but contain some type of sensitive information on them, are they accessible only to certain individuals? Physical security can be set up to protect various records, but it usually is cumbersome and kind of a pain – locked cabinets, tracking individuals accessing the files by sign-in sheets, rooms designated for particular document types, and so on. Not only is it a lot of work, but it takes up valuable office space and requires plenty of tracking, which is hard to do.
When you have your records digitized, you can set up permissions, audit tracking, and need-to-know access right inside your application. If someone shouldn’t look at certain files, just don’t allow them to have access. Wondering who was opening up a certain case file? Check the audit log which captures the access automatically. You can even have the digital files locked down to a particular IP address so that no one, even if they have the permissions to see the records while at work, can access the database outside of the office. All this is done without using storage rooms, locks and keys, and chain-of-custody sheets.
5. Backup Disaster Recovery
If your building burned down today, would your staff be able to function? Your response to this question should tell you a lot. Assuming you have hard copy records, they’re probably not duplicated and stored off-site since making a duplicate of hard copies just for storage is expensive, a lot of work, and most folks don’t do it. So how are your documents protected in the case of a disaster?
Now imagine you have digital records. Your office burns down – feel a little bit better? Of course! Since your records are digitized, they’re not affected by the fire and can still be accessed, even if it has to be done remotely. Having digital records allows you to make backup sets so that when something happens to your primary network, you can still have copies of your records.
Which Courts Should Consider Digitizing Their Records?
If you have hard copy files, you’re in a spot to consider digitizing your records. It’s not really a question of which type of court you work for, it’s a question of how effective you want your office to be. Circuit court, district court, superior court, juvenile court, bankruptcy court, appellate court, municipal court, it doesn’t matter! What matters is that you have documents that you use on a daily basis and want to get them digitized so you can be more effective.
How Secure Is Digitizing Court Records?
This is something that depends on who you choose to work with. If you’re scanning and digitizing your material internally, then it’s all up to the folks you have scanning and how your IT team configures the network. But let’s assume you’re looking to hire a company to scan your records.
We can’t speak for other companies, so we won’t. If you work with us, your records are secured through multiple levels of physical and digital security processes to protect your data. Depending on the records you’re having us scan (i.e. employee files, financials, criminal records), we’ll set up our project process flow to handle the various document types. Different types of records require different types of security; scanning and digital conversion isn’t a one-size-fits-all game. For instance, if we’re scanning case files, which contain criminal justice information (CJI), we process your records using our CJIS digital scanning procedures. If we’re scanning financial information for your office, we’ll process it differently than CJI.
Process Of Digitizing Court Records
What are the first steps in digitizing court records?
To start the process of records digitization, you’ll first have to figure out what you have. This means determining how many documents you’re going to include in your scanning project. Depending on how they’re organized, you might be able to identify the number of files (such as cases in folders) or boxes of records, or maybe the number of microfilm rolls that are to be scanned.
Are you working with hard copy paper files? More detail about how to evaluate your records and come up with a solid plan for scanning and indexing can be found here. This article describes the details of paper scanning so that you can envision how your records will get from hard copy to digital.
If your office has microfilm records, we recommend you read our article about preparing microfilm for scanning. Microfilm can be a little bit easier than paper files because there’s less “mess,” but it still requires preparation.
What should you know before digitizing court records?
One of the most critical pieces of the project puzzle is having an end goal in mind. “Scanning” and “digitization” are very broad terms and can mean many things to many people. When you decide to turn your hard copies into electronic files, it’s important to understand that the details matter so that you come out at the end of the project with the most successful result possible.
When your digitization project is complete, what does the picture in your head look like? How are you accessing your files? How are they organized and who has access to them?
Before you start you should also think about the timeline for your project. You may wake up one day and think “time to digitize, let’s roll!” but then get dragged down in the messy minutiae of logistics and actually getting your project off the ground. To help you in this area, we have an article about reverse-engineering your project so that you fit the pieces together starting with the end in mind. By working backwards from when you want your project completed, you can identify the resources, personnel, and time needed to make your idea a reality.
Lastly, keep your expectations realistic. There’s an inherent belief that once records are digitized, all of your problems will be solved and records management will be a breeze. We wish this were true, but it’s not. Your electronic files will only be as useful as you make them based on your planning and organization. Here are a few expectations to keep in mind as you embark on digitizing your records.
How do we access our records while they’re being digitized?
When you work with a scanning company to get your court files digitized, at some point you’re handing over the physical copies. This can be scary by itself (do you trust the company you’re working with? If not, that’s problem #1!).
Another concern you might have is “how do I get my records while they’re out of my hands?” The short answer is that if you’re working with a partner that’s on their game, they’ll work with you to come up with a “records request” plan in the case that you need to get to a file while it’s out of your office and before it’s digitally available.
The full answer is too long to put here – so if you’re interested in more detail about records requests during a scanning project, you can take a look at our article specifically on this topic.
Who can access digitized court records?
Deciding who can access your records is up to you – do you want all your staff to be able to access all records, or do you want to restrict certain files to specific employees? Do you have different document types such as non-confidential vs. confidential information? Can you set up a workstation so that the public can view the non-confidential files when they visit your office?
The type of access permissions you create will depend on the type of records available, the rules you need to follow for file access, and your own organizational nuances. We’ve seen many variations for digital records setup – some clients have a “public portal” in their office where people can come in to access non-confidential records, and then have a separate “private portal” for their staff that includes both non-confidential and confidential records.
Additionally, even within the staff database there may be employees that have access to all records while others have access only to certain file types. It all comes down to what you want to set up.
Most of the court files we digitize contain criminal justice information (CJI), which is covered by the CJIS Security Policy. If you’re interested in accessing the FBI CJIS database, there are specific processes you must follow to be allowed access to the information.
Services For Digitizing Court Records
Who can help you digitize court records?
The type of records that you’re trying to scan will influence which companies can help you. If you have all hard copy paper documents, you’re likely to find a local company to partner with since paper scanning is pretty common. If you have microfilm and microfiche records then it could get a bit more difficult to find a local partner.
Another option is to look for electronic records management (ERM) companies, the folks that provide the software applications for content storage. Since they deal with the digital images and data, they’ll either have a scanning operation and can work with you directly, or at the least they’ll have some dealers/partners of their own that they can direct you towards.
Last, but definitely not least, is us! For paper file scanning, we usually work with courts that are in the western region (Pacific coast, Nevada, Arizona), although every project has its exceptions. The reason we mostly keep regional with large paper scanning projects is because they can take a decent amount of logistical effort and can be a bit messy when the project is scaled up; paper files are just inherently more cumbersome than other types of documents.
For microfilm and microfiche, we can work with you no matter where you’re located. Microfilm is easy to ship, which is the primary method of transportation. Also, if you’re interested in legacy data migration, that’s all digital and can be done from anywhere – no shipping issues!
What services are available for digitizing court records?
The main theme of this article has been to provide information on the general benefits of digitizing court records. To briefly wrap up, we’ll recap a few of the distinct services available to court records departments.
Scanning paper files to digital records, pretty straightforward. These can be case files, employee records, financial information, whatever you have available. The majority of paper scanning we see with our court clients is case files, usually organized into folders.
Just as with paper scanning, the majority of microfilm records that we scan for our court clients includes case files, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if you find various other documents captured on microfilm. Microfilm scanning can be a quick and simple project, and since the standard roll of film holds about 2,500 images, there’s lots of information stored on your film collection.
Once your records have been scanned and digitized, they need to have a home. If you have your own records management system, they’ll probably be imported into that application. If you don’t have your own hosting platform yet, our Digital ReeL solution can provide you with simple and secure access to your records and act as a disaster recovery backup set.
Data migration is the process of taking digital images and data from one system/application and transferring it to another. This could be done to get out of an old and outdated database, or it might be so you can consolidate your digital records into one central application.
Indexing refers to both the organization of digital files, such as capturing the data from a folder tab, or it can refer to capturing specific pieces of information (“fields”) from documents, such as name, date of birth, social security number, and case file number.
Redaction is removing or covering sensitive data from records. If you need to redact data from files before allowing access to them, or disseminating the information, you might be interested in redaction services. Most redaction projects include hundreds of thousands of images because entire databases need to be reviewed to first find the records that need redaction, and then actually redacting the data.
If you’re one of the few organizations required to keep eye-readable copies of your records but you don’t want the hassle of loads of paper files, you might be interested in converting digital images to microfilm. By archive writing your digital files, you’ll have a microfilm copy to satisfy the record retention guideline and you’ll also have a backup of the information.
Do you have a digital scanning and conversion project that you’re trying to get off the ground? Give us a call at 800.359.3456 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll set you up with one of our reps to discuss your project. Even if you just have a few questions to wrap your head around, we’re happy to help.
Enjoy some of our other articles related to digital conversion as you move forward in your project planning:
“CJIS Digital Scanning” is our overview of how to go about scanning criminal justice information (CJI) for law enforcement agencies. As a member of a court, we’re almost certain that you and your colleagues are handling and processing CJI, so this should be a good starting point for you to understand what CJIS means and why it’s important to you.
“Quality Assurance & Digital Conversion” highlights the importance of QA when you embark on a digital conversion project, and also describes the nuances of various types of QA. Ensuring your court records are captured properly is critical, and QA can help ensure that you’re doing your project right.
“How Much Does Microfilm Scanning Cost?” dives into, well, how much microfilm scanning costs. We identify and describe nine factors that most commonly influence scanning prices. By reading this article you’ll have a good understanding of how much a scanning project could be, and determine how you want to move forward.