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DA’s office going digital

No tax dollars were used for new case management system

The days of lugging around bins brimming with paper files might soon be a thing of the past for the Blair County District Attorney’s Office, DA Pete Weeks said.

“When I became (the DA’s) first assistant in 2018, we had several hundred boxes of files in the office,” Weeks said. “We had them stored under people’s desks, lining the hallways and there was simply no more room to store them.”

A couple years ago, the office began an initiative to purchase a server, allowing the case files to be digitized and accessed by computer, Weeks said. While the system was well ahead of paper filings, he said it was far from optimized.

In June, however, the DA’s office acquired a new, digital, case-file management system, Prosecutor By Karpel (PBK), which has streamlined the office’s ability to manage and access file data.

Weeks said his team started negotiating a contract for the new system with Karpel Solutions, which created and maintains PBK, in 2019. After some back and forth between Weeks, Karpel and the Blair County commissioners, he said he was able to bring the company’s initial asking price down from more than $100,000 to about $75,000 with an annual fee of $13,000.

“We did all that without using tax dollars,” Weeks said.

The DA’s office used discretionary funds gained from legal actions, such as drug asset forfeitures, to fund the purchase of PBK, he said.

Some victim-witness program grant funding might be allocated to further cover the system’s costs.

But overall, Weeks said it is difficult to secure grants for similar projects, because the county does not have staff dedicated to the lengthy and involved grant application process.

“We were the first county in Pennsylvania to sign on with Karpel Solutions, which helped us get the discount,” he said. “Several other counties have joined since June.”

Necessary update

Transitioning the DA’s office into a new data management system wasn’t at the top of Blair County’s priority list. Weeks said it took some convincing — nearly four years’ worth.

“People are often resistant to change,” he said. “But we have a duty, as prosecutors, to stay up to speed. We have to adapt and change, because the criminals certainly are.”

The county’s IT department did not favor a switch to cloud data management, because of the potential for weakened data security.

“Karpel does use a cloud management system, but it’s a military-grade secured cloud, which is used by the Department of Justice,” Weeks said.

Keeping all the data on-site would have driven up the cost of installing the system by about $30,000, he said.

While many new attorneys on the DA’s staff have only ever used a digital system, some staff preferred the paper files, Weeks said.

First Assistant District Attorney Nicole Smith said innovation in bureaucracy requires effort, and without Weeks, the DA’s office case management might have remained firmly planted in the 20th century.

“It’s a county-by-county system, where each DA decides what their office needs,” she explained. “(Weeks) is the one who pushed for this, did his research and presented the options for moving forward.”

While paper files were adequate in decades past, Smith said the data requirements of today’s legal system have exponentially grown in recent years.

Case files might include several gigabytes of footage from body-worn cameras and surveillance cameras, photos, cellphone data and large audio files, all of which were previously copied onto CDs and tucked into each individual file.

Sealing the cracks

PBK allows attorneys to file notes in each case, updating each other about the status of people involved with the case.

“In any given case, we have a lot of hands on the case,” Smith said. “Victim’s witness advocates, our attorneys, the defense and so on.”

Prior to the digital system, attorneys might be caught unaware when a judge asked questions about a case the DA’s office was handling, but was not under their direct purview. In other instances, the DA’s office attorneys might not have access to a defendant’s prior convictions.

Now, photos, video, audio, case notes and detailed criminal records are available at the touch of a screen, saving valuable time and potentially preventing miscommunication or confusion, Smith said.

“It allows us to be on top of our game,” she said, “and make sure nothing slips through the cracks.”

Paper files also require significant physical storage, and Weeks said the county was running out of space.

“Some cases might contain 20 pages, and others might contain 2,000 pages,” he said.

With the DA’s office processing about 2,600 cases a year, the files pile up. But implementing a new system brings new challenges.

While the DA’s staff scans the most recent cases into the system, another county staff member is scanning in the oldest cases. Weeks said it could take years before all the information is uploaded digitally, but the benefits outweigh the setbacks.

“We’ll be saving the county paper costs as well as untold staff hours chasing down case information,” he said. “It’s worth the investment.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ike Fredregill is at 814-946-7458.

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