A computer terminal sits to the left of Chief Judge Barnard F. Jennings in his expansive, dark-paneled courtroom in the Fairfax County Circuit Court. The IBM 3330 screen silently displays information about scheduling conflicts that the judge, with the help of his clerk, can resolve without interrupting the case before him.
In the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in Alexandria, a computer is being programmed to monitor child support payments.
As the money is paid into the court cashier's drawer from one parent or guardian, the computer in turn issues a check for the support payment.
In Maryland's general district courts, computers will begin closing the gaps in criminal records that prosecutors say have allowed some defendants to slip through one system unbeknown to court officials in another jurisidiction who have charged the same defendant with other crimes.
Throughout the metropolitan area, computers are revolutionizing court systems--institutions long viewed as bastions of the cumbersome and conservative traditions of paperwork and personal persuasion. The change has not come without resistance.
"Lawyers are basically conservative as a group," said Jerry M. Phillips, president of the Fairfax Bar Association. "They like to be able to come together at the courthouse. They like the camaraderie of finding out what's going on. With computers, everyone becomes more isolated."
"But most lawyers who have turned to computers now swear by them," Phillips said.
While many court systems in the area have used simplified computers to catalog cases and compile courtroom dockets for more than a decade, most are only just beginning to use computer technology to manage caseloads and coordinate criminal records between police, courts and probation systems.
"We're making a quantum leap," said Russell E. Hamill, the assistant chief administrative officer for Montgomery County who has managed the courts' transition into the computer age. "It's the difference between horse-drawn carriages and a modern limousine."
"We hope to make crime a higher risk venture," said Hamill. "The computers, through improved efficiency, will help us be more effective in combating crime."
Both Virginia and Maryland are expanding new statewide computer systems this fall that will link local courthouses throughout the state to central information banks.
While Maryland officials are developing a statewide computer system allowing police agencies, courts and parole systems to share much of their background information on criminal records, Virginia officials are shying away from any interagency information trading. Virginia officials, and judges in some jurisdictions, say they fear a massive compilation of records among every criminal justice agency in a state could open the doors for unauthorized access to privileged information.
Maryland officials, however, say they hope to use their statewide information system to prevent criminals, especially repeat offenders, from slipping through cracks in the judicial system. This fall the state will begin tying each of its district courts into the statewide system, allowing local courts access to each others's arrest and conviction records.
"We've seen instances where a person could be arrested for selling dope in one district, be released on personal recognizance bond and be arrested for the same thing in another district the next night and be released again," said Paul E. Leuba, who is coordinating the computer program for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
"We're hoping to eliminate thsoe gaps where a person can hop around to different jursidictions, and because he's a new face, be put back out on the street again."
Last January, Maryland computerized its parole and probation system. As a result, Leuba said "a probation officer can set a flag next to a client's name in the computer and if that person is arrested anywhere in the state, that officer will be notified." Leuba said.
Court officials in Fairfax County, where the court system began extensive use of computers in 1978, say computerization has drastically reduced staff workloads and improved accuracy in court record keeping.
"Before we installed the computers, someone had to physically pull the file from shelves every time an attorney called with a question," said Bonny Jones, court clerk for the chief judge in Fairfax Circuit Court. "Sometimes you couldn't even find the file because it would be in the judges' chambers. Now you don't even need the file."
Three years ago Fairfax computerized its land records and now provides two computer terminals for public use in the county judicial center.
"It used to take the better part of a day to assign cases," said Chief Judge Jennings, who is charged with assigning dates for all criminal and civil cases in the circuit court. "Now it never takes more than one hour."
Jennings also says the computerized organization of the court docket has been one of the factors that has helped court officials reduce the county's average waiting period for criminal trials from six to two months between arrest and trial date.
Virginia has budgeted $2 million for computer pilot projects in 19 court systems this year and state officials will ask the general assembly for an additional $7 million over the next two years to expand the program to 48 more court systems, said Martin T. Kallighan, who is heading the computerization program for the state Supreme Court.
While most court systems have confined use of the computers to court and law enforcement personnel, Fairfax County officials say they are considering providing access to some court information to private law firms.
"We hope to select some large law firms with computer systems to tie in with ours enabling them to provide the available court dates of their attorneys and coordinate them with our available court dates," said Jennings.
But county officials said no firms have offered to participate in such a project yet.
While attorneys are satisfied with the new push-button access to information now provided by the courts, some may not be so eager to do away with "the old traditional ways of doing business," said bar association president Phillips.
But, as a sign that computers are gaining increased acceptance in the legal community, the official monthly magazine of the Virginia State Bar has announced that it will begin in August a regular column--written by a lawyer--about computers.