The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Court officials blame software for wrongful arrests, other legal mishaps

(Alex Domanski/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Wrongful arrests, delayed prison releases and other legal mishaps have been caused by inaccurate records processed by a new court management software system installed in Alameda County, Calif., court officials say.

It has gotten so bad that the public defender's office filed a motion last month for the county court to immediately fix the problems caused by the county court's software system, called Odyssey Case Manager, or scrap the system completely. A total of 26 separate incidents were documented in the motion, though Public Defender Brendon Woods stressed that this was “just the tip of the iceberg” in terms of the number of people affected.

“People’s lives are being drastically changed. This is something that needs to be fixed immediately and not later,” Woods said to The Washington Post.

Odyssey manages a court's logistics, keeping track of people who have entered the legal system and the status of their cases. It's employed across 600 counties in 21 different states, serving an estimated one-third of all courts in the country, according to the company behind the software, Tyler Technologies. For many courts, the digital record keeper is a welcome upgrade from aging computer systems and paper files, and its popularity is an apparent testament to its workability. But when installed in Alameda County in August, Woods said, the new software caused a domino-like series of problems on the court's digital filings.

As Woods described it, the biggest issue for the county stems from the user interface. Using Odyssey, he said, clerks typically take 20 to 30 minutes to input all of the data needed to file a court action, such as an issued warrant or jail release. The old system took just two to three minutes per case. It has caused a backup in which cases aren't updated on time, causing, for example, a defendant who had already shown up for his court date to be arrested again because his case file showed outdated information. Incomplete filings are growing by an estimated 200 to 300 a day, according to Woods.

Woods also said Odyssey's data is not interacting correctly with other legal software in the system. People who have been charged with drug offenses are showing up as sex offenders, Woods used as an example. And some cases already settled in the old system have shown up in the new system incorrectly.

“There are just so many levels to this problem it's hard to even quantify,” Woods said. “But it's not a person’s fault. It’s a software problem.”

Odyssey's problems haven't been limited to Alameda County. In Shelby County, Tenn., which also implemented Odyssey recently, a group of defendants filed a class action lawsuit against the sheriff alleging that they were held in jail past their release dates during a computer software upgrade, according to the Memphis Daily News. While county commissioners, who blamed Odyssey, at one point considered pursuing a lawsuit against Tyler Technologies, the Memphis Daily News reported, the idea has been dropped. County commissioners say that they realized that delays were caused by integration of the new software into several existing systems rather than glitches or bugs with Odyssey itself.

Two years ago in Marion County, Ind., a lawsuit was filed against the county jail by two inmates who claim that because of issues with the newly installed Odyssey software, they were held in jail for days after they were supposed to be released, according to the Indianapolis Star. The Marion County Sheriff's Office declined to comment on the pending case.
Asked about the three counties' complaints, Jeff Puckett, the president of Tyler Technologies's courts and justice division, said that in each of these cases, issues stemmed from different circumstances involving “fine-tuning” the software implementation and interaction with existing systems.

“This is not a new piece of software,” he said, adding that Tyler has not been contacted by any of the three court systems about actual bugs or glitches. “To draw a line from these problems to, 'Well, the software is broken or is not doing its job,' is just not a fair conclusion.”

When pressed about whether Tyler could provide better integration support to courts that use its software, Puckett said the question was asked under a “false premise.”

“Tyler's responsibility is limited to implementing the Odyssey courts system,” he said. He added that the company has a support staff devoted to transitioning clients to use of their software.

But for public defender Woods, it's less about who is to blame and more about doing something to stop the problem. The county court has set a date in January to hear the public defender's motion, which Woods says is simply too far away. Last week, the defender's office filed a writ to an appellate court to grant their request to be heard before the January date.

“To anyone who says it's just a few issues, I want them to come down and talk to the person who served 14 extra days illegally, tell them it's just a small crack in the system. Talk to my client who was jailed in front of their parent's house,” he said.

“They can’t quantify the human experience by saying it's a small number of cases,” he said. “People are suffering.”